If there’s anyone who has perfected the art of the dislikable, elderly curmudgeon in the latter years of her career, it’s Shirley MacLaine. In Bernie (2012), MacLaine played an ill-tempered, affluent woman despised by the whole town. When she was murdered, nobody cared. In the new comedy with a message, The Last Word, MacLaine plays a cantankerous, affluent woman despised by everyone she’s ever known. If anything happened to her, again, no one would care.
In director Mark Pellington’s The Last Word, MacLaine plays Harriet Lauler, a control freak who was once a successful, independent businesswoman, but now lives alone. When her gardener cuts the hedges to less than her satisfaction, she takes the clippers and does the job herself. When her cook cuts the vegetables in a less than satisfactory manner, Harriet takes the knife and completes the task. And after a visit to the hospital where she tries to tell the doctor his job, the doctor tells her, “I’m going to do some tests, and if you have a problem with that, I don’t care.”
It’s shortly after that hospital visit that Harriet reflects on her mortality. She decides to have the local newspaper write her obituary in advance of her passing so that she can read and approve the copy. “The thought of leaving my obituary to chance is unreasonable to me,” she states to young reporter Anne Sherman (plucky Amanda Seyfried), the writer unlucky enough to be assigned the task. Unfortunately for Anne, when she visits anyone who ever knew Harriet, there’s nothing positive to be said. “A hateful, hateful woman,” insists her priest. “I hated her so much.” Her ex (Philip Baker Hall) tells of how Harriet refused to take his last name when they married. “Who did that back then?” he asks, and warns Anne about visiting their daughter (Anne Heche); it would not be a fruitful meeting.
After coming up with nothing, all Anne can surmise is that Harriet Lauler literally put the bitch in obituary, so she writes what she can; a single paragraph. Naturally, Harriet is appalled, but as Anne tells her, throughout the woman’s life, because of this unyielding belief that everyone else is the problem, she’s alienated anyone she ever met; there’s nothing positive to write. Later, after doing a little homework on how she would like her obituary to read, Harriet develops a plan. “You’re going to help shape a legacy,” she tells the reluctant reporter, and together they head out to retrace Harriet’s life and alter the way she’ll be remembered.
The whole thing is, of course, total nonsense. Harriet decides to help a poor child of the streets and rehabilitate her. Who knows, it might give the reporter a neat opening sentence. The child turns out to be sassy nine year-old Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), a pint-sized urbanite whose f-bomb laden dialog sounds as though it was written for someone twice her age. And when Harriet decides she’d like to be the morning DJ at a local, independent radio station, she marches in, gets an audience with the program director and convinces him within a single page of dialog to drop the current announcer and hire her, which he does. Evidently he likes her taste in music sweeps; she’d start the show with something by Nina Simone and end the block with The Kinks.
There’s some mild fun to be had with MacLaine’s performance – you have to admit, she’s good at this sort of thing – and several of those early scenes where people from Harriet’s past berate her are undeniably funny. When a gynecologist tells the reporter of how Harriet would say, “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you,” then ads that the doctor gave back Harriet’s insurance co-pay because the woman’s opinion was right, there’s early promise of some very clever wit. But, as things develops, it turns out not to be the case. When Harriet emerges from the radio station studio after her first morning on the air, the whole staff applaud her for a job well done, including the previous morning show announcer who lost her job. Apparently, throwing in a surprise Eddie Cochran number in one of the music sweeps was considered a stroke of genius. Oh, the fantasy of being a radio announcer and playing what you like, when you like, and being applauded by the staff and the program director when you leave for the day.
The ultimate issue is the one of Harriet’s perceived redemption, if you can call it that. Once she gets to know the elderly woman, reporter Anne sees Harriet in a different light, which you knew was always going to be the film’s direction. Harriet is annoying, enough to make even a priest hate her, but once you look beyond the surface of her stubborn, unstoppable meanness to others, the film asks us to feel like Anne does as we discover together that there’s really something else giving reason to her unpleasant attitude to everything and everyone. But it doesn’t really work. Like young Brenda’s dialog or that moment of applause at the radio station, you won’t buy it for a single moment.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 107 Minutes Overall Rating; 6 (out of 10)