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, Anne Heche
Closed captioning available.
The great Shirley MacLaine, the female lead in the Academy Award-winning 1960 romantic comedy “The Apartment,” delivers a memorably surly performance in “The Last Word” as control freak, divorcee, feminist pioneer, businesswoman and battle ax Harriet Lauler.
A strong, opinionated woman at a time when such qualities were not welcome in women, Harriet also managed to alienate everyone in her personal life, including her husband (Philip Baker Hall), whom she loved, and her long-estranged daughter, who makes an appearance in this story’s valedictorian third act.
Harriet is such a control freak that after a halfhearted suicide attempt she refuses to leave her increasingly unavoidable obituary to chance. In opening scenes, the abrasive, still regal Harriet marches into the office of cowed Ronald Odom (Tom Everett Scott), the editor-in-chief of the Bristol Gazette, a foundering local newspaper for which Harriet used to supply advertising life blood, and she insists that he send his obit writer to her at once.
Harriet meets her proverbial (and I mean proverbial) match in Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), the self-reliant singleton essay author. Harriet, who has an idea or two about how snappy copy should sound, gives Anne her marching orders. Anne insists she must get to know the people in Harriet’s life to do her obituary justice. Formulaic?
Yes. The film, which was directed by Mark Pellington (“The Mothman Prophecies”) and written by newcomer Stuart Ross Fink, was executive produced by MacLaine and Seyfried. The action, which at times mirrors MacLaine’s real life, especially the bits about estranged daughter Elizabeth (Anne Heche), begins with still photographs of the real, radiant MacLaine in childhood and youth.
While MacLaine and Seyfried have chemistry and make a good mismatched mother-daughter duo, the material is often bland, generic and at times even lame. A subplot involving a spunky African-American 9-year-old named Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), recruited from a community center by Harriet to mold personally and accompany her and Anne on their bantering exploits, is at the least a flagrant cliche. A subplot about Harriet’s love for rock, blues and folk music and her desire to work as a DJ at a local radio station is not very credible. But it introduces Anne to hunky station manager Robin (the likable Thomas Sadoski, “The Newsroom”).
MacLaine (“Being There,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Steel Magnolias”) is often a hoot in this. The role will remind some of Lily Tomlin’s standout work in the somewhat similar and even better 2015 effort “Grandma.” You could do a lot worse than fictionally shuffle off your mortal coil to the tune of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.”
-James Verniere, Boston Herald