A cantankerous octogenarian, disliked by all, sets out to remake herself as a model citizen in “The Last Word.”
The film is a comedy that benefits from the gifts of an effectively typecast Shirley MacLaine but traps her in a story lacking credibility and in a production bereft of emotional truth.
Directed by Mark Pellington (“Arlington Road”) from a screenplay by Stuart Ross Fink, the movie plays it safe and sappy while presenting a no-nonsense heroine who believes in taking risks.
MacLaine’s character, Harriet Lauler, is a wealthy former business-world star and longtime Kinks fan whose controlling, ill-tempered nature has left her without friends or close family.
Pellington shows Harriet looking at the objects in her large, pristine Southern California home and reflecting on, presumably, where she’s been in an opening passage.
Savor these scenes, which are as honest as the movie gets.
Thinking about mortality at age 81, Harriet begins worrying about how others will remember her.
To ensure that she goes down glowingly in history, she persuades a newspaper editor (Tom Everett Scott) to assign obituary writer Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried) — who makes rotten dead people sound saintly — to pen her obit while she is still alive and able to determine the content.
When Anne can’t find a single person willing to speak kindly about Harriet, Harriet gives herself a moral makeover.
She mentors a disadvantaged child, a potty-mouthed 9-year-old named Brenda (Ann’Jewel Lee).
She reconnects with her ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall) and estranged daughter (Anne Heche). She gains a “wild-card” distinction as well: a DJ job at an indie station.
Writing Harriet’s story, Anne learns that Harriet isn’t without admirable facets. Harriet ran a successful advertising company in times hostile to women in business, for starters.
Harriet, meanwhile, helps Anne develop the confidence she needs to write and publish essays. A road trip, with Brenda in tow, solidifies the women’s bond.
MacLaine, who seems to captivate Pellington if the string of opening photographs he presents of Harriet (really MacLaine) is any indication, gives the movie the sort of blunt, crotchety, entertaining “Terms of Endearment”/“Postcards From the Edge”/“Bernie” heroine it calls for.
She also suggests a sadness on her face in the mortality-related moments.
The supporting cast, too, contains worthy talent, and when Pellington simply lets good actors — MacLaine and Hall, as ex-spouses, in particular — interact, something compelling starts brewing.
But by bouncing the characters from one phony scenario to another, the filmmakers make the story impossible to believe. At one point, Harriet crashes Anne’s date with the radio-station manager to influence the course of things.
The mother-daughter reunion, which should be tension-packed, is abandoned when it’s just getting started.
Brenda, who spends much of her time dancing or swearing, is a mere plot device. The same goes for Seyfried’s Anne, an unadventurous writer who needs Harriet’s encouragement.
We feel nothing real when these characters purportedly enrich and empower one another. MacLaine is a treasure, but this movie is tolerable goo at best.
The Last Word
Starring Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall
Written by Stuart Ross Fink
Directed by Mark Pellington
Running time 1 hour 48 minutes