Amidst the cacophony of noise caused by the latest blockbusters, sequels, crossovers, and franchises, the last few years have seen a redoubling of roles for some of our finest actresses of a certain age. Sally Field in Hello My Name is Doris, Blythe Danner in I'll See You In My Dreams, Susan Sarandon in The Meddler, and now you can add Shirley MacLaine in The Last Word. In each of these cases the films are good if predictable looks at retirees in need of a new lease on life. While conventional, each film was enlivened by the presence of these amazing actresses who have been sidelined from worthy leading parts for too long. And MacLaine, who has been deprived more than most, fearlessly dives into a familiar "curmudgeon with a heart of gold" role and makes it her own.
Actually, she makes the entire movie her own because I don't know if it'd be bearable without her. The thorny character she plays, 81-year-old control freak Harriet Lauler, is very tough to like even as she transforms into a wise old sage with life lessons galore, but MacLaine imbues her with the fiery spirit of a warrior who has withstood life's punches. The early going is where the biggest laughs come, as we learn just how domineering Harriet can be. The wealthy former ad exec lives basically alone in her comfortable home, a scowl permanently etched on her face as much as a glass of wine is in her hand. She's the type of person who can't trust another to do what she can do better herself. The gardener isn't trimming the bushes right? She'll just send him home and do it herself. A hair stylist would later say that Harriet walked in and did her own hair. Her gynecologist laments giving Harriet back her co-pay because she came in and did her own diagnosis. Nobody seems to like her at all. Director Mark Pellington cleverly reveals a man who confesses how much he hates her, only to subtly pan down to reveal he's actually a priest. That kind of universal disgust takes a special kind of effort. Harriet's lonely, and seemingly ready to call it a life.
An "accidental" brush with death and a quick read of the local paper's obituary column changes her perspective. Impressed by obit writer Anne Sherman's (Amanda Seyfried) ability to make people Harriet hated seem beloved by all, she charges into the newspaper with a proposal. She wants to supervise while Anne writes her obituary now, while she's still alive, just to make sure that her life properly documented and given the appropriate sheen. Anne thinks it's a crazy idea but her boss pressures her into it because Harriet's ad money has kept them afloat for years. She agrees, but soon discovers everyone on the list of people who knew Harriet best all hate her guts. Oops.
Undeterred, Harriet comes up with a formula for a good obit: the deceased must be loved by family, respected by co-workers, have touched someone's life for the better and that goes double if it's a minority or a cripple, and there must be a wildcard factor nobody knew or expected. The rest of the film unfolds in a recognizable pattern. Anne and Harriet squabble over how the obit is going, while the older woman repeatedly intrudes upon Anne's life. In the most offensive bit, Harriet begins mentoring 9-year-old Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), an at-risk African-American girl with a smart mouth and a "my way or the highway" attitude. She's basically there to drop the occasional F-bomb and to dance in practically every scene, and while there's a bond with Harriet and Anne that forms, it's tough to forget she's just Harriet's pet project. Brenda is only there so Harriet can look good to others, and nothing that happens ever changes that.
Some aspects of Harriet's formula work out better than others. A subplot about how she was fired from the agency she built is given short shrift, although it does allow the three ladies to slo-mo walk like characters out of Reservoir Dogs. A confrontation with Harriet's uptight daughter (Anne Heche) reveals the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Best is the discovery of Harriet's love of music and longtime desire to be a DJ. She bullies her way into a gig at a local indie music station ("Independent music for independent people"), winning over its boss (Thomas Sadoski) over their shared love of The Kinks. Sparks fly between him and Anne, giving Harriet the chance to touch another life unexpectedly. It isn't long before Anne's dislike of Harriet softens to annoyance, then acceptance of her as a woman who just wanted the best of everything and the best out of everyone.
That transition has its rough patches thanks to a script that repeatedly overreaches for poignancy, in particular during a cheap hotel visit in which the women skinny dip in the moonlight and have pillow fights. There's a lot of dancing, too much dancing. Nobody who dances this much can be so miserable. Also, Anne's struggles to be a great writer never feel the least bit authentic. We don't believe she's that gifted nor do we believe she's that tortured over it. This has nothing to do with Seyfried, who makes the most of a reserved character clearly meant to be overshadowed. And in that, MacLaine certainly does overshadow everyone else. She embraces Harriet with the recognition of someone who has also lived by her own standards, and after all of those years certainly won't compromise at the end. But we also see in MacLaine's Harriet someone who was unprepared for the consequences of setting such a high bar, and after years of shunning people who didn't measure up she's ready to give them another chance. Harriet still expects too much from them, but at least now she's willing to drop some knowledge rather than hurl insults. MacLaine makes us believe that an old dog like Harriet can still learn some new tricks.
Rating: 3 out of 5