Shirley MacLaine has never been one to shy away from playing difficult and somewhat unlikable women onscreen. The pinnacle of the archetype is her portrayal of Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment and The Evening Star, but it’s also on full display in Steel Magnolias, Postcards From the Edge, Bernie, and elsewhere. It’s something she’s embraced with age – something, I suspect, that reveals more about the limited roles for women (especially women of a certain age) in cinema than it does about the career choices made by MacLaine over time. Be that as it may, MacLaine has taken to these roles like a duck to water, spitting life into an array of stubborn and ornery older women who are considered difficult because they know what they like and think. Now we can add The Last Word’s Harriet Lawler to that list. If only the movie that encases this character were as sharp and distinctive as Harriet.
Patently generic from its unoriginal title on down, The Last Word would be dismissible but for the performance of MacLaine, who refuses to let Harriet Lawler slip into a movie stereotype of a rich, old, crotchety woman. Yes, the character is all those things, but MacLaine also imbues her with a twinkle of self-awareness and righteous self-confidence. Divorced and estranged from her only child, the once-successful businesswoman now rattles around her empty house. Control-freak Harriet has gotten it into her head that her obituary should be prepared prior to her death, and so Anne (Seyfried), the local paper’s obit writer, is tasked with the impossible project. When no one has anything nice to say about the undead subject, Harriet enlists Anne in the mission of burnishing her life. This involves mentoring a brash, underprivileged girl (Dixon), reuniting with the daughter she hasn’t seen in decades (Heche), making peace with her ex-husband (Hall), and most important, volunteering as a deejay at the local radio station. Here, she spins records from her own collection, including lots of songs by the Kinks – “the most underrated band of all time.” The Last Word’s story arc is predictable and first-time screenplay writer Stuart Ross Fink’s dialogue is boilerplate. Director Mark Pellington (Arlington Road, The Mothman Prophecies, U2 3D) adds nothing inventive to the mix. As the movie slips into its own “Waterloo Sunset,” Shirley MacLaine and the Kinks are the only entities that make this movie viable.
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