While I can’t say exclusively great things about The Last Word, I can say that I enjoyed it more than I expected. If this sounds like damning by faint praise, it should be noted that I apparently have kinder feelings toward the picture than most critics, at least if its current Rotten Tomatoes score of 35 percent is to be taken as any indication (which I would never advise). It may not be the definitive role of Shirley MacLaine’s illustrious career, but it certainly has its moments — most of which can be attributed to her performance.
At 82, MacLaine is still a commanding presence on the screen, although the material she’s been given to work with here is severely lacking. I’ve always had mixed feelings about MacLaine’s work — films like The Trouble with Harry and The Apartment are indisputable classics, while I can’t stand her in Some Came Running — I have to say that she delivers a very strong performance in The Last Word. Here, she plays Harriett Lauder, an elderly control freak who, upon realizing that she will die unloved and less than fondly remembered, decides to micromanage the writing of her own obituary. This brings in Amanda Seyfried as millennial obituary writer Anne, tasked with the unenviable gig of polishing Harriett’s reputation. This being a quirky indie dramedy, the odd couple soon find out they have more to learn from each other than they realized. If this premise sounds like just about every other Sundance darling you’ve ever seen, that is not coincidental. What is slightly more mysterious is why an actor of MacLaine’s stature would sign on to such a project having presumably read the screenplay first.
The script goes on to add another surrogate daughter figure in the form of a disadvantaged young black girl, taken under Harriett’s narcissistic wing in the hopes of padding out her obit. The inherent racism of this plot device is lampshaded by first-time screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink but then executed with all the tone deafness of a genuine bigot. A romantic B-plot involving a hipster radio DJ and the addition of an estranged daughter from Harriett’s failed marriage (played with excellent comedic sensibility by Ann Heche) add complication but no complexity, a result of Fink’s workmanlike writing. If all of these relationships sound contrived, that’s because they are.
Fink’s pacing starts off strong but quickly loses narrative momentum with a significant second act drag and an anticlimactic third act that falls distinctly short of achieving any gratifying catharsis. Director Mark Pellington doesn’t help matters with an unpolished visual style, including some inexplicable handheld camera work that punctures the suspension of disbelief with its obtrusiveness. There is very little in the text of The Last Word that could be considered original or even interesting. But where the text falls short, performances pick up some of the slack, as all three actresses give compelling performances. The end result is a film that is only saved from being terrible by the heroic efforts Seyfried and MacLaine, both of whom deserved better.
While Seyfried’s character is painfully underwritten, she still manages to support MacClaine ably in defiance of the weak characterization allowed by the script. And MacLaine, to her great credit, is able to render Harriett as a three-dimensional character who, while never likable, at least comes across as understandable — it’s almost as though she gives the character an arc that isn’t present on the page through her performance alone. It’s unfortunate that The Last Word reads like a swan song for MacLaine, as she seems to have enough life left in her to keep turning out quality work — and it would be a dubious distinction ill-befitting her legacy if this were to be one of her final performances. Rated R for language. Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre.