If someone’s life was dedicated to making terrible mistakes, bad decisions, and committing acts of cruelty, can that person turn it all around and redeem themselves in their final moments? I suppose you could compare it to a basketball game. It doesn’t matter how bad the team plays as long as they can muster a win by the time the clock buzzes in the fourth quarter. Of course with any person’s misdeeds, there are varying levels and you should judge them based on the severity. I also wouldn’t advise waiting until your about to die to make things right, but still. Better late than never.
In The Last Word, directed by Mark Pellington, Shirley MacLaine plays Harriet, a retired, successful businesswoman with a storied career; but her ruthless tactics and harsh demeanor have driven away most of her colleagues and left her with few friends. As she contemplates her regrets, she comes to the realization that she needs to make a better name for herself while she still has time. She decides to have her obituary written before she dies. She hires an obituary writer named Anne(Amanda Seyfried) to follow her and gain inspiration from her acts of charity and goodwill. One of the first things Harriet does is take on the role of mentor for an underprivileged child. She specifically seeks out an African-American girl, which she believes will garner the most respect and adulation from the public, who is named Brenda(AnnJewel Lee). With the road to her improved image now constructed, Harriet must ascertain if any of these things makes her a better person inside or if the acts themselves are proof that she was never such a bad lady to begin with.
The premise is quite familiar to other films I’ve seen. The main character plays the anti-hero who reluctantly helps others out of necessity or a means to an end. Harriet is actually a strong, driven woman with enough confidence to fill a swimming pool. She just doesn’t communicate her thoughts and feelings in a way that doesn’t make people want to run away.
What I enjoyed the most about this movie was the relationships between all three women. The interactions between Harriet, Anne, and Brenda were fun and entertaining. Those scenes provided some great funny moments. When they are on the road together and getting into misadventures, the atmosphere lights up and makes the movie more inviting. The scenes between just Harriet and Anne are particularly engaging with the older, experienced woman trying to impart wisdom on the aspiring writer who put her dreams on hold.
Harriet herself is a one-woman show. Shirley MacLaine is incredibly talented with a wealth of performances under her belt. Those performances served her well in this movie as she is practically doing a slightly toned-down, 30 years older, version of Ouiser from Steel Magnolias. There are scenes in The Last Word where MacLaine says nothing and her body movement and facial expressions have you cracking up. It’s something only a professional actor like MacLaine could pull off. She makes the most of her time on-screen and adds gravitas to the scenes with her costars.
Where this film loses me is when the movie tries to be a comedy. The deliberately funny moments are heavy-handed and don’t add to the story in any way. They are there to elicit a reaction from the audience and when they’re over you just want them to get back to meaningful dialogue. One of the silliest scenes is when Harriet attempts to reconcile with her daughter at a restaurant. It becomes this strange exchange of emotion and just ends abruptly. If they didn’t have that scene, it would have made no difference.
I also had issues with the overall pacing of this movie. It seems to meander through the plot and leaves the characters in a state of flux. There’s no clear timeframe for how all this is supposed to play out and that makes the scenes drag a little because you’re not sure where they go from here. The general narrative progression you expect from these type of movies is lacking and when the movie eventually reaches it’s obvious conclusion, it wraps everything up without really earning that moment.
The Last Word is a delightful film about being true to yourself, but not plowing over your fellow-man in the process. I would definitely watch this for Shirley MacLaine’s performance. Amanda Seyfried and AnnJewel Lee also do a great job. While I would have preferred more drama and less overt comedy, it does succeed at making you laugh. There are times where you feel connected to the characters, but then the editing and uneven scenes interrupt that connection. Your thoughts may wander between amusement and sympathetic reflection. Neither thought is firmly planted in your mind so that’s where you get the emotional detachment when you watch this movie. I am, however, happy and excited to see MacLaine on-screen again and will see anything she has coming up.
The Last Word:
About The Last Word
Synopsis: Harriet is a retired businesswoman who tries to control everything around her. When she decides to write her own obituary, a young journalist takes up the task of finding out the truth resulting in a life-altering friendship.
Director: Mark Pellington
Writer: Stuart Ross Fink
Stars: Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, AnnJewel Lee Dixon, Tom Everett Scott, Philip Baker Hall
Runtime: 108 Minutes