Shirley MacLaine, 83, is everything in Mark Pellington’s “The Last Word,” and the movie itself is MacLaine through and through. The film worships its star, from the opening credits that show snapshots of MacLaine from childhood to the present day to the big house in which her character lives, its walls covered with framed portraits of MacLaine that the camera sweeps over more than once, as if they were religious icons.
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MacLaine, who made her debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 black comedy “The Trouble with Harry,” is the only survivor of her generation of actresses. Those who like her – as I do – remember her great performances in movies such as Vincente Minnelli’s “Some Came Running” from 1958, which made her a star; Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning “The Apartment” from 1960; Robert Wise’s 1962 “Two for the Seesaw”; Wilder’s 1963 “Irma la Douce”; and “Sweet Charity” from 1969, the first movie directed by Bob Fosse. MacLaine’s fans will appreciate the tribute paid to her by “The Last Word”; but that tribute, alas, has its unfortunate aspects.
MacLaine’s greatest roles owed their power to a blend of uniqueness, resolve and vulnerability. But since James L. Brooks’ 1983 “Terms of Endearment,” which won her an Oscar after four prior nominations, she has mostly been cast as an eccentric, difficult and demanding woman (in Hebert Ross’s 1989 “Steel Magnolias,” Mike Nichols’ 1990 “Postcards from the Edge” and Curtis Hanson’s 2005 “In Her Shoes,” among others). Perhaps that is the only kind of role available to an actress her age, but it’s a shame that Pellington, who clearly idolizes MacLaine enough to create this vehicle for her, did not give her a chance to break out of the stereotype of the sharp-tongued, bossy old lady. She performs this kind of role well, but is capable of a great deal more.
Worse still is the fact that “The Last Word” starts out okay, but soon devolves into what is known as a “dramedy” – that is, a drama with comic elements – that is entirely made up of familiar formulas. The plot is not only predictable; it is forced, and lacks a single believable minute. MacLaine deserved so much more than this.
MacLaine plays Harriet Lauder, a universally despised wealthy woman long estranged from her only daughter. She lives alone in her large house, having driven away even the servants. She used to run a successful advertising agency but her partners voted her out because of her rude, aggressive behavior. Harriet wants to control every aspect of her life, including her death, and after almost dying at the beginning of the movie, in what may or may not have been an amateurish suicide attempt, she decides that it’s time to have her obituary written – not, however, without her supervision.
Harriet therefore contacts the struggling local paper, which owes its continued survival to the funding she provides, and is referred to Anne (Amanda Seyfried), the paper’s obituary writer, who is frustrated by her job and dreams of a serious literary career. Anne has no choice but to accept Harriet’s unusual request, which is delivered as an order that must be obeyed. Having done research into the matter, Harriet demands that Anne write an obituary containing the four basic requirements of the genre: a loving family (which she does not have), colleagues who have learned from her (ditto), a person whom she has helped in a time of need (no such thing), and some unique activity to give distinction to her life story (ditto). Anne, in other words, has been given an impossible assignment.
So far, so good. Anne interviews all of Harriet’s acquaintances and cannot find a single person willing to say a good word about her, including her ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall). But Harriet insists that the obituary be written based on her specifications, and here “The Last Word” deteriorates as it follows the efforts made by Harriet and Anne to supply the missing materials for a respectable obituary. (Their initial hostility will, of course, turn to affection, since Harriet needs a daughter figure, and Anne could use a mother.) These efforts include – spoiler alert – the adoption of an African American child, Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dickson), who lives in a home for disadvantaged children and is chosen by Harriet like an off-the-rack outfit; a job as a DJ at what is supposed to be a radio station playing really good rock (to me it sounded like really bad rock), where Anne falls at first sight for the manager (Thomas Sadoski); and an effort to reconnect with Harriet’s ex-husband, whom she suddenly doesn’t seem to dismiss as an utter moron, and with her frosty daughter (Anne Heche).
Harriet, Anne and Brenda – one of those energetic, articulate children who seem to exist only in certain kinds of movies – become a tight-knit posse, and in one particularly unnecessary scene they even go for a night swim in a magical-looking lake. Of course Harriet undergoes the inevitable transformation and reveals herself to be not quite the heartless witch everyone thought she was; all she really needed was a bit of human connection, warmth and love. Could even Shirley MacLaine save such an unfortunate mess?
Well, yes and no. MacLaine’s performance is as deft as might be expected. She commands the entire movie, and every line she delivers is precise; but she faces two serious limitations. First, she is asked to play an impossible character who finds herself in untenable situations, such as her job at the radio station: what, exactly, impresses the station owner so much that he hires her on the spot? That she has a record collection she’s willing to donate and really likes The Kinks? Wouldn’t it make more sense for Harriet to be a fan of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, for example? That would have deepened the portrait of MacLaine offered in “The Last Word,” since she was part of the same pack as Sinatra and Martin. Second, the movie doesn’t ask much of MacLaine as an actress. With her experience and skill, she can play this kind of character on autopilot. Although Pellington did give MacLaine her first starring role in several years, he doesn’t present her with any kind of challenge. The metamorphosis Harriet undergoes is so schematic that MacLaine can do little beyond succumb to the demands of the faltering screenplay.
The usually amiable Amanda Seyfried is also not sure what to do with her role. Anne’s literary ambitions are unconvincing, and the way she is written leads to embarrassing over-acting on Seyfried’s part. As for MacLaine, the internet has it that she has since made another movie, is currently filming a second and slated to appear in a third; “The Last Word,” that is, is not really her last word – fortunately.