It’s always a welcome thing to see Shirley MacLaine, even at her advanced age (82), wrinkles and all, and even in a movie as bad as The Last Word, but this time she’s strangled out of existence by lumpy direction and a lousy screenplay in a vehicle that is, to be generous, totally unconvincing, contrived, and phony as one of those reducing creams that promise to eliminate varicose veins but only give you hives.
THE LAST WORD ★★
Directed by: Mark Pellington
Ah, the memories. She was once the Oscar-winning star in the crown of Billy Wilder comedies and Bob Fosse musicals. Those days are over now, and with good roles at a minimum, this once-unsurpassed cinematic rag doll and the musical toast of Broadway and Vegas has been relegated to playing mean-spirited, acid-tongued old curmudgeons delivering salty punch lines ever since she dispensed hilarious negatives as Ouiser Boudreaux in Steel Magnolias. In The Last Word, she’s another old battle-ax named Harriet Lauler, a retired advertising executive and impossibly demanding perfectionist who lives in an impeccably neat mansion where her hard-boiled insistence that the servants do everything her way has driven everyone away, leaving her to wander around the empty rooms giving the furniture the white-glove test for dust. Lonely, demanding and insulting all who dare to ring her doorbell, Harriet is doomed to the role Shirley has been playing for years—the town grouch. She’s as insufferable as ever, only this time she dresses better.
Then, an unexpected illness forces Harriet to face a few gloomy fact: she won’t last forever. So she researches the ingredients that make up a perfect obituary that she can count on after she’s gone to make her look like a cross between Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Crocker and Eva Peron, and recruits a local newspaper reporter named Anne (Amanda Seyfried) to write it. Anne is a serious author with ambitions, wasting away on the death-notices page. When she meets Harriet it’s hate at first sight, but the paper is losing money in the digital age, so the editor owes the old cow a favor for the financial contributions she’s made to keep the local rag afloat. Anne is never going to be the next Joan Didion this way, but it’s her pride or her job. She goes to work.
The dilemma is immediate. How can she write a flattering obit about a rich bitch everybody hates? Interviews with Harriet’s shrink, gynecologist, hairdresser, and even her priest prove toxic. The ex-husband she hasn’t seen in 22 years remembers their marriage as torture spent on an uncomfortable couch. “That wasn’t a couch,” she counters, “it was a settee.” “That,” he retorts, “is French for herniated disc.” Nobody has one good thing to shape a legacy instead of merely transcribing one. Harriet insists a memorable obit must contain four elements—a family that loves her, co-workers who have learned from her wisdom, an underdog whose life has been touched by her in a positive way, and an unexpected “wild card” to serve as an opening line. To Anne’s dismay, not one of the four elements applies to Harriet. From here, the movie turns into a preposterous road trip as Harriet tries to reconcile with the estranged only daughter who hates her (Anne Heche)—puttering, wafting and meandering in myriad directions at once, in a futile attempt to pad the running time. Harriet’s traveling companions are the reluctant Anne, who knows a hopeless assignment when she sees one, and a disadvantaged black nine-year-old juvenile delinquent with a potty mouth (AnnJewel Lee Dixon) they pick up along the way. It all ends miserably, the car breaks down, and they spend the night in a seedy highway motel where they all go swimming together in a freezing cold lake. In the process, Harriet manages to rehabilitate and enhance the lives of everyone involved. Oh, did I forget to mention she also drags her vast long-playing record collection to a local radio station and gets a job as a disc jockey?
Despite the presence of Shirley MacLaine, the moments of pleasure provided by The Last Word are far outnumbered by scenes of exaggerated, phony, sugary marzipan-like make believe, woodenly directed by Mark Pellington and embarrassingly overwritten by Stuart Ross Fink in a screenplay that forces Ms. MacLaine to say things like “You don’t mistakes, mistakes make you!” Nothing about the characters makes any logical sense, the late night dip in the stagnant pond in the dark is ridiculous, a woman with Harriet’s money would never spend the night in a seedy motel sleeping in the bed with two other people when she could afford the Ritz-Carlton, and no octogenarian who talks about Nina Simone would go on the air and play horrible second-rate rock and roll to everyone’s inexplicable delight. Shirley herself would prefer Sinatra ballads, big band jazz and show tunes by Cy Coleman to a passion for “The Kinks”. I didn’t believe a word of it, including the eulogy in the end, delivered in the sanctity of a church, replete with four-letter words—and nobody seems remotely shocked that someone says “Shit” in the sanctity of the pulpit? Boy, it’s getting harder to find roles for female senior citizens. Only the British seem to be able to do it, which is one reason Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are still stars. The philosophy in Harriet’s final obit in The Last Word is to be remembered fondly after everything else fails. “That’s the most any of us can hope for—not to be forgotten.” Funny. I’m forgetting her already.