Starring Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried. Rated PG
An obituary writer meets her match in The Last Word, a haphazardly written comedy that still manages to remain entertaining for its almost-two-hour running time. That’s because of the screen real estate handed to Shirley MacLaine, now 83, who has no doubts about how to use it.
La MacLaine plays Harriet Lauler, a wealthy advertising pioneer who came up when women didn’t do that sort of thing.
Long retired and alone in an overmanicured mansion in Bristol, California (southeast of unmentioned Los Angeles, where this was filmed), despised by the few folks forced into contact with her, she’s ready to pack life in. But then she notices all the glowing notices other old-timers get when they shed this mortal coil.
Harriet runs down to the office of the local newspaper—one her company helped build, now struggling—and demands to see obituary specialist Anne Sherman, played by Amanda Seyfried, whose acting presence is maturing nicely.
Anne’s already a frustrated writer who dreams of more independence. So you can imagine how much she likes having her words shaped by someone who isn’t even dead yet.
The film’s director, Mark Pellington, has handled some genre stuff plus a number of music videos, and he has a music promo man’s skill at narrative arcs—which is to say, none. Individual sequences are handled well but often make no sense when butted up against the scenes around them. The worst incongruities come down to first-time screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink, who tries to shoehorn too many ideas into too few characters.
After establishing that Harriet is full of prejudices, he has her troll an impoverished community centre (in “South Bristol”) to mentor a small black girl (AnnJewel Lee Dixon) who’s described as “at risk”. But the child is neither troubled nor at risk of being an actual character; she’s a decorative appendage to the story, just as she is to that future obituary.
Harriet grew up in the 1940s, but is suddenly revealed to be a big fan of psychedelic free-form radio and, swear to god, gets a disc-jockey gig so she can play the Kinks and ’70s soul. Yuh-huh. If living life to the fullest means being someone different in every scene, MacLaine certainly sells that idea, with sappy vim and some saving vinegar.