Here’s a new movie rule: If you’re going to sit through a Sundance “crowd-pleaser,” complete with cardboard situations and cheeseball snark and life lessons, it’s always better if that movie stars Shirley MacLaine. In “The Last Word,” she plays — what else? — a cutely difficult pie-eyed pixie-curmudgeon who is always scolding everyone and telling them how to improve themselves. I can think of many films where she played a similar role that outclass this one — like “Terms of Endearment,” “In Her Shoes,” “Bernie,” or “Postcards from the Edge.” Those were real movies. “The Last Word,” written by Stuart Ross Fink and directed by Mark Pellington, is an eager assemblage of quasi-fake setups and two-stroke characters. It makes “Little Miss Sunshine” look…organic. (It’s also not nearly as well-made.) Yet MacLaine, who isn’t above falling into high-concept shtick herself, hasn’t lost the gift of spontaneity. At 82, she’s spry and fearless. The movie is glorified claptrap, but she hitches it to her acerbic zest for life and acting and walks away with it.
MacLaine plays Harriet Lauler, an affluent dame who lives by herself in a beautiful Colonial in the town of Bristol, where she once led her own advertising agency. Harriet possessed talent and drive, and still does, but she suffers from what the film calls “obsessive-compulsive personality disorder,” which means that she has to control the world around her and do every last thing her way. She has alienated everyone she’s ever known; at one point, a man calls her hateful, and the camera inches down to show us that he’s wearing a priest’s collar. But the way a movie like “The Last Word” works, this is all our cue to see that, deep down, Harriet is nurturing a heart of gold.
After accidentally OD-ing on sedatives and red wine (or did she kind of mean to do it?), Harriet takes the action that launches the movie into its orbit of ha-ha cute-ville: She decides that she wants to have her newspaper obituary written…right now. While she’s still healthy and hale. She marches into the offices of the Bristol Gazette, a struggling daily she helped to keep afloat with her advertising, and is introduced to Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), the paper’s obituary writer. It’s a ridiculous mission, and these two have nothing in common, which means that within moments their quibbling/affectionate May-December buddy mentorship has been totally established.
Harriet wants Anne to write an obit that makes her sound like God’s gift to humanity. To do that, Anne has to observe Harriet acting like a good Samaritan, has to see her communing with her family, and needs a “wild card” — that special defining quality that lends a person’s life distinction. So Harriet does the following wacky things. She looks for a poor, lost inner-city child to rehabilitate, and finds her in Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), an f-bomb-dropping nine-year-old angelic urchin with Rasta braids who the movie treats like a dancing mascot. She goes to visit the daughter she hasn’t seen in 20 years (Anne Heche), who turns out to be a chip off the old control freak.
She also finds her wild-card thing. It turns out that Harriet was a major music fan up through the ‘70s, and after Anne tells her about an independent radio station in town, Harriet marches into the studio, demands to be installed as a DJ, and within 25 seconds has so charmed the station’s DJ-manager — they both think the Kinks are the most underrated band of all time! — that she lands a DJ spot. And she’s terrific at it. (It’s all about the song sequencing.) I didn’t “buy“ any of this, but not buying it is sort of the point. The movie is selling a feel-good fantasy: Look, Shirley MacLaine is still hip! Mark Pellington directs “The Last Word” like a neo-‘80s daydreamer — the sort of filmmaker who probably thinks that “A Christmas Story” improved on “It’s a Wonderful Life.” To him, going slightly over-the-top is what movies are about.
Yet once you inch past all the ersatz amusement, MacLaine’s performance begins to take on deeper, richer hues. Harriet may want her obituary written ahead of time, but she is dying — at least, you know, eventually — and MacLaine’s witty yet saddened presence haunts the movie with the sense of a lengthy life that now, inevitably, includes the grand sum of its imperfections. Seyfried, who can be a vivid actress, has been handed an underwritten part. Anne is supposed to be a gifted essayist who’s been holding back her talent through insecurity — but frankly, I saw neither the gift nor the self-doubt. Yet watching MacLaine’s Harriet embrace her life, after spending too much time rejecting it, leads “The Last Word” to a touching finish. MacLaine has something that shines through and elevates a film like this one. The movie is prefab indie whimsy, but she gives it an afterglow.