Since the first movie version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1901, filmmakers have been relaying the tale of an elderly person contemplating his or her existence and attempting self-improvement before death. Add to that list of redemption stories The Last Word, starring Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried. Though the movie is likable and contains a unique premise, the dramedy falls flat thanks to its contrived, unremarkable script and performances that often fail to connect on an honest, emotional level.
MacLaine, admittedly a good fit for the role, plays Harriet Lauler, an aging and – as the British would say – obsolete ad executive who has been discarded from her own agency. All that’s left for her is death, but Harriett is such a control freak that she longs to engineer even her own demise.
“The thought of leaving my obituary to chance is completely unreasonable to me,” Harriet bemoans.
So she turns to her local paper’s obituary writer, Anne Sherman (Seyfried), who – thanks to Harriet’s generous financial donations to the struggling paper – is forced to follow Harriet for days, studying her and concocting the perfect obit. It’s an unenviable task.
“She puts the bitch in obituary,” Anne complains. But after Anne initially gives up after no one has a single compliment for Harriet, the subject persists: “You’re going to help shape a legacy.”
And so the obituary composition turns into something greater: a reinvention of Harriet. And therein lies the problem, as director Mark Pellington and writer Stuart Ross Fink can’t make the transformation believable or interesting enough to warrant a run time of 108 minutes.
That might not seem long, but after enduring Harriet’s nonsensical and tonally challenged mentoring of an underprivileged child, Harriet’s quest to become a disc jockey and Harriet’s attempt at reconciliation with her estranged daughter (Anne Heche in the film’s briefest and best performance), we’ve had our fill of Harriet, and then some. (I was just as interested in the transformation of Anne, but that subplot is never fully developed. And the talented Thomas Sadoski, as Anne’s romantic interest, is mostly wasted.)
It’s not that MacLaine is bad. (Indeed, the legend has earned the right to return to the screen in whatever role she chooses.) Playing a sort of irresistible curmudgeon, she has her moments of dramatic and comedic success, as does Seyfried, but the writing and acting simply aren’t crisp or revelatory enough to recommend a viewing.
It’s as if the movie is searching for what obit writers call the “wild card,” something to define a subject and grab the reader’s attention. It gropes madly for that card but comes up empty-handed. And that’s my last word.