Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried and AnnJewel Lee Dixon in The Last Word. (Beth Dubber/Elevation)
From her roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry to Terms of Endearment and Steel Magnolias, Shirley MacLaine is Hollywood’s twinkly-eyed sweetheart. A working actor since 1955, she is nothing short of legendary. The Last Word, directed by Mark Pellington and opening this Friday, will not be a part of that legacy. I hope that in the name of her decades-spanning career and six Academy Award nominations (plus one win), we might do MacLaine the small courtesy of forgetting that this pedestrian and dull comedy ever happened.
In The Last Word, MacLaine plays a ball-busting retired advertising executive named Harriet Lawler who finds herself miserable, old and alone – rattling around in her California mansion yelling at her paid help. Thinking that a bottle of pills and Merlot are the best way out of the sad final act of her life, Harriet begins to prepare for her death. She is certain that a heart-warming and inspired obituary is the way to rewrite the burned bridges and broken relationships of her life up until now. She bullies the local newspaper, the Bristol Gazette, into lending her their obit writer Anne (Amanda Seyfried) so that the two of them might undo Harriet’s many wrongs and not only write, but enact, the perfect memorial. The plot follows exactly as you think it will from the obvious set-up in the film’s first 15 minutes. Ninety-three minutes left to go.
The ingredients for a good movie are all here, sort of. The obituary industry is an odd and quirky one to think about – who are the writers tasked with crafting someone’s last words? – and that’s not bad for a film’s premise. Likewise, questions of commemoration and legacy are thorny, rife with drama and estranged children (in this instance, a brief appearance by Anne Heche), but in The Last Word, they are laid to waste, as is MacLaine’s indomitable talent, by lethargic pacing and a sorry script. The film also introduces a third musketeer by way of Brenda (played by the adorable AnnJewel Lee Dixon) a little black girl from the poor part of town who is an “at-risk youth” inserted into the plot for no other purpose than to give the movie its 14A rating in swear words and to dance for comedic relief.
Seyfried as Anne is meant to be naive – a careless young woman spinning posthumous yarns for the newspaper’s aging readership who will soon be requiring her services themselves. But with a weather-worn leather journal clasped to her chest containing her “real” writing and a schmaltzy back-story about childhood games played before her mom abandoned her, Seyfried lays the doe-eyed naivete on thick. Her character remains as thin as a piece of newsprint. Lazy but employed full time at a newspaper, she is the picture of a millennial writer as imagined by anyone other than an actual millennial writer.
When Harriet herself returns to the work force, becoming a disk-jockey who dispenses life advice and playlists, she tells her soon-to-be-boss that she’s so rich that she won’t need to get paid. Balking next to her is a woman in her early 30s who will consequently be out of a job. Unlike the retired baby boomers in search of hobbies, she can’t work for free. This movie is willfully tone-deaf to the precarious reality that a young professional losing her job to a bored retiree isn’t cute.
The Last Word could have been sappier, it’s true. The movie doesn’t give itself over fully to the saccharine potential of an octogenarian befriending two youngsters before the inevitable happens. But, in trying to be as spicy as its trailblazing, cocksure protagonist, The Last Word is all bravado and punch line, no substance. Time – thank god – is up.