Shirley MacLaine, an Academy Award-winning acting legend, paid tribute to by Charlize Theron at the Oscars last Sunday, stars as Harriet Lauler, an obnoxious, mean-spirited crank in "The Last Word". This wretched, unamusing, tedious screenplay by Stuart Ross Fink is so completely unworthy of Ms. MacLaine's abundant talents.
Now in her 80's, Harriet lives alone in a rather large home staffed by people whom she chastises daily. Her issues of strict control have spilled over from her career as the owner of a very successful advertising agency, which she began, but was eventually ousted.
She has become obsessed with reading obituaries, particularly those composed by Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), a writer for the local newspaper. To offset the chance that her own obituary will not be perfect, Harriet hires Anne to capture her life prior to her demise so that she may approve the content.
A problem arises when Anne interviews everyone on Harriet's list, including her ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall), and no one has anything good to say about her. Undeterred by Anne's findings,. Harriet is determined to reshape her image and legacy, and enlists Anne's help to accomplish this seemingly overwhelming task.
If this all sounds rather stupid --- it is. Harriet's efforts include becoming a morning-drive disc jockey on a local, hipster station run by Robin Sands (Thomas Sadoski) and mentoring a troubled child, who turns out to be a nine-year-old black girl, Brenda (Ann'Jewel Lee), with a foul mouth.
Fink's script is riddled with cliches and schmaltz. The transitioning of Harriet from a curmudgeon to a fun-loving grandmotherly type with Anne and Brenda transpires in the blink of an eye. There is no real depth to these characters, consequently it is impossible to care about their growth and change.
MacLaine is a joy to watch, but the material here in "The Last Word" is beneath her. She deserves better than a night-time skinny dip/pajama party with Seyfried and Lee, and a truly horrible scene with Harriet's estranged daughter, Elizabeth, played by Anne Heche. I have never been a fan of Heche, and once again she solidifies my assessment of her abilities with a grotesquely overacted lunch date with MacLaine.
Even Seyfried, whom I usually find admirable, is flat and uninspiring in her portrayal. You can only roll those big beautiful eyes so much before it becomes ineffective.
I have absolutely nothing good to write about "The Last Word". Usually, I am wowed by child actors, but Lee's performance left me annoyed and disappointed. It can be slightly disarming, and sometimes charming, when a child abruptly lets loose with profanity. But, trust me, there is nothing remotely endearing about Lee's overbearing cuteness. I simply could not wait for "The Last Word" to draw its last breath.
Opinion: Don't Bother!
Fortunately for Shirley MacLaine, she has several more movies in tow, so "The Last Word" will not be the final statement in her storied career. It's a film with a good premise gone awry, and the fault lies in the writing, not the cast.
Harriet Lauler (MacLaine) is a retired businesswoman who decides she wants to be involved in writing her own death notice. Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried) happens to be the obituary writer for a struggling newspaper. So Anne is hired by Harriet to get it written.
The marketing campaign for "The Last Word" would have us believe that the relationship that develops between the two women is a life-altering affair. The only thing it alters is the patience of its viewers who will not recoup two hours of their lives.
For a story of this ilk to work, you have to be able to empathize with its characters. I felt no such connection with either Harriet or Anne, nor did I believe for a second they cared for each other. When Anne breaks down delivering a eulogy at Harriet's funeral, it played out like a staged emotion and nothing more.
In fact, most of the film has a contrived sense to it, none more so than the little African-American girl, Brenda (Ann'Jewel Lee), whom Harriet latches on to like her long-lost daughter. Lee hams it up and her character is forced into the script with no good reason for her being part of the story.
"The Last Word" is billed as a comedy, but there's very little in the way of humor. When Harriet, along with Anne and Brenda, meets her estranged daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Heche) for lunch, it's just an unrealistic liaison that is more of an embarrassment for MacLaine than for her character. She cackles for what seems to be an eternity in a crowded restaurant after Elizabeth says something that sends her into loud guffaws.
"The Last Word" is directed by Mark Pellington, who has a mediocre resume, and is penned by Stuart Ross Fink. This is his only writing credit for any medium, and it shows. There is one egregious flaw in the script that any journalist would recognize. Anne's love interest, Robin Sands (Thomas Sadoski, Seyfried's real-life partner) asks her if she plans to elevate her obit career to covering celebrities, but any journalist knows that news publications keep pre-written star obits in the appropriately titled "morgue" for immediate --- i.e., next day --- printing.
It is painful to criticize a Shirley MacLaine film at this stage of her career, given her many accomplishments, including six Academy Award nominations with one win for "Terms of Endearment". But alas, "The Last Word" is an early candidate for worst movie of the year. Where have you gone, Irma La Douce??
Opinion: Don't Bother!