I have just two words for The Last Word: Shirley MacLaine. The legendary star is back with a leading role worthy of her talents and she lets it rip in this amusing, and ultimately touching, film about an 81-year-old divorced woman determined to control her own departure by creating her obituary while she is still alive.
As I say in my video review above, MacLaine rides though this movie with supreme confidence and a complete understanding of just who her character, Harriet Lauler, really is. It was a role written with her in mind and she doesn’t disappoint. This is a woman who needs to be in charge of every aspect of her life as we quickly see in her interactions with her gardner, housekeeper, hair stylist, ex-husband, estranged daughter, and so on. So it is only natural she would want to also control things even after she has left the earth.
Following a near-death episode in which she “accidentally” swallows too many sleeping pills mixed with a glass of wine, she stumbles on to the Obituary section of the fading local newspaper, the Bristol Gazette — an entity she helped a lot when she was a big-shot advertising executive. Meeting with the paper’s editor (Tom Everett Scott), she uses her clout to get him to assign their obituary writer Anne (Amanda Seyfried) to do the job. After her initial research can’t turn up anyone on the list of 100 names Harriet supplied who has anything good to say about the woman (including the local priest!), she delivers the bad news, but Harriet won’t take no for answer. She does her own research and comes up with the four key qualities that make a great obit and proceeds, with Anne in tow, to go out and do some perfunctory good deeds to provide the copy.
Along the way they are joined by a young girl, Brenda (AnnJewel Lee), and it all turns into a much more life-enriching experience than either woman ever expected as three generations end up inadvertently giving one another the meaning of what a life well-lived can really be. A sequence where Harriet even becomes a late-in-life drive-time DJ with a strong knowledge of music, and love for The Kinks, is especially welcome.
If Harriet’s transition from crotchety to warm-hearted is somewhat predictable, it is all in the playing here, and MacLaine and Seyfried play nicely indeed off each other. Newcomer Lee is a delight, and there are effective scenes with Philip Baker Hall as Harriet’s ex, and Anne Heche (giving as good as she gets) as the estranged daughter. Thomas Sadoski also does fine as the radio station manager they encounter, someone who Harriet thinks could be just the guy Anne needs at the moment. Director Mark Pellington keeps things movie at a strong pace and Stuart Ross Fink’s debut screenplay gives these actors enough to work with to make this a solid spring entry that should have strong appeal to older audiences still not willing to go gently into that good night.
But in the end this is all about Harriet, and with MacLaine in charge things are right with the world. I particularly loved the title sequence which is supposed to represent Lauler’s life in photos, but really also show us how far we have come with MacLaine herself and what a life she has had. Producers are Kirk D’Amico, Anne-Marie MacKay, and Pellington. Bleecker Street opens the film in limited release Friday.
Do you plan to see The Last Word? Let us know what you think.