The Last Word
★ ½
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The reality The Last Word proposes is a thinly disguised fantasy. Its world is one where a cranky octogenarian can burst through the doors of a radio station and start up a conversation with a regionally popular host and it all goes smoothly—where any ol’ tow truck driver is more than willing to commit a felony on your behalf simply because you told him to.

Eighty-one-year-old Harriet Lauler (Shirley MacLaine), a divorced and retired business mogul, is the ultimate control freak. After concluding that she isn’t satisfied with how her life will be commemorated postmortem, Harriet hires obit writer Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried) to write a death notice that will ensure Harriet is remembered in legendary terms. Apparently lacking even a modicum of self-confidence, every character that encounters the self-obsessed Harriet is utterly unable to say no to her.

This unrealistic plot may be fair game for a silly seventies-era exploitation film, but certainly not for a film that tries to win viewers over with grandiose “wisdom” about love, life, and death. Whether she’s barging into an editor-in-chief’s office or tenderly reminding Anne that her writing needs to reflect the life of a grown woman, not a teenager, Harriet is a static character, bizarre and inconsistent.

Harriet’s quest to inspire a glowing obituary about herself through the work of the young, fearful, and impressionable Anne desperately needs a more inspired filmmaker than Mark Pellington (Arlington Road, The Mothman Prophecies). Pellington phones in a well-shot film that has the allure of indie magic but the stench of disingenuousness. Rather than utilizing a consistent style or approach, Pellington is merely checking off boxes. He understands the need for a bare minimum of edginess, beautiful vistas, and lots of teary-eyed close-ups to create an acceptable independent film experience.

Sure, one could argue that the film reflects Harriet egocentrism. She dispenses with politeness and expresses herself with blunt transparency, regardless of the potential injury her words might cause. But Harriet’s idiosyncratic perspective does not mean the world around her operates similarly. The events depicted in The Last Word hinge on her status as wealthy and white, but they’re fed to us as if they’re born of Harriet’s depth of experience, risky will, and indomitable sass.

This positive message about women, rendered dull through numbing repetition, lands awkwardly throughout. Pellington shows no interest in exploring the pros and cons of Harriet, who embodies many stereotypes feminists fight against. The strength and individuality of well-written female characters deserves much more screen time, but The Last Word comes close to degrading the women at its center by portraying them as either immature preteens or ruthlessly ignorant elders.

MacLaine and Seyfried do their best with the lax material, but a stock screenplay—the first by Stuart Ross Fink—leaves no room for tasteful interpretation. Cringe-worthy one-liners like, “She puts the bitch in obituary” and “You don’t make mistakes, mistakes make you” typify the clichés on offer. Worse, the score devastates the movie: sappy electronic keys play over moments already soured by overt sentimentalism; bright, upbeat tunes accompany scenes that would benefit from silence.

In all, it’s a feel-good PSA about grabbing life by the horns—and nothing more. As always, MacLaine gives a stellar performance, leaving us to wonder how a more nuanced version of this story might have played out.