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Film Review: The Last Word, Held Together By A Nuanced Performance by Shirley MacLaine

Photograph courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

Photograph courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

Judging a film based on a its trailer is something I’m quite vocal about avoiding. I live by the rule that trailers always get it wrong; even when they don’t, they do. They make bad movies look good and good movies look bad more often than not. When I see someone say that they didn’t like a film because, for example, the marketing made it look like a comedy when it was, in fact, more a drama, I respond “Whose fault is it for believing the trailer?” They are certainly more egregious examples of misleading trailers than the one for The Last Word, starring Shirley MacLaine as Harriet, a rich older woman who is retired from the ad agency that she once controlled. Harriet becomes friendly with Anne (Amanda Seyfried), the local newspaper’s young obituary writer who somehow made the worst people she knew sound downright lovable.

The premise of The Last Word is that Harriet hires Anne to research her life, interview dozens of people who know her, and write her obituary in advance so that Harriet can approve it. But because MacLaine seems to specialize in playing abrasive characters in her later years, it turns out Anne can’t find a single person to say anything nice about her. Her ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall) is maybe one of the kinder interviews, while Harriet’s estranged daughter won’t even return Anne’s calls.

So back to the trailer discussion. The Last Word’s trailer paints it as more of a lighthearted romp through a grumpy old lady’s life, but the actual film is a little more emotionally driven and less brash and noisy than you might expect. Harriet’s entire career was spent fighting the sexist, all-male sales team she worked among, so perhaps it shouldn’t be quite as surprising that her demeanor has soured over the years. But instead of simply giving up on her obituary idea, Harriet identifies three or four things that make a great obit and sets out to fulfill some of the criteria.

Photograph courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

Photograph courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

Among items on the checklist are helping out an underprivileged child (AnnJewel Lee Dixon) and having a feature-worthy hook in her life story (in this case, Harriet takes her ample rock vinyl collection to a local indie radio station and takes over the morning-drive shift, impressing the station manager Robin (Thomas Sadoski), who immediately takes a liking to Anne (because we really needed a love story on top of everything else). And as nuts as it all sounds, a great deal of The Last Word ends up working, primarily because MacLaine is such a nuanced performer and, it turns out, is just as capable of pulling back as she is of going over the top in other films. One of my favorite sequences involves Harriet reuniting with her daughter (the perfectly icy Anne Heche), a moment that does not play out how you think it will—not even close—and it’s a testament to MacLaine’s splendor.

Written by Stuart Ross Fink and directed by Mark Pellington (Arlington Heights, The Mothman Prophecies) The Last Word has a really terrible ending that is both predictable and trite, but it’s not enough to destroy the goodwill the rest of the film builds up. I’ll admit that the concept of Harriet simply taking a young black girl under her wing as something akin to a publicity stunt is a bit unsettling, but even that takes an unexpected turn that mostly redeems the conceit…mostly. I should add that if you’re thinking this might be a great film to take the grandparents to, please note that this is an R-rated affair, due entirely to language. You could do better this weekend, but you could do a whole lot worse.

The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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