The Last Word, 2017.
Directed by Mark Pellington.
Starring Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Anne Heche and Ann’Jewel Lee.
A wealthy retired businesswoman decides that her life story should be told her way and employs a local journalist to write her obituary in advance – and under her supervision. But the journalist won’t follow the script and starts to look at her client’s life in more detail, discovering some surprises along the way – and finding that perhaps her bark is worse than her bite.
The legendary Shirley MacLaine hit 83 this year and, despite the title of the film, this is not her swansong. She has several more in the pipeline, which is fortunate, as somebody with such a great and varied career deserves to go out on a high. And, sadly, The Last Word isn’t it.
She plays Harriet, a retired businesswoman whose success was down to micro managing everything. Even though she’s no longer working, she’s exactly the same with her gardener and cook in her luxurious home. Or, as journalist Anne (Amanda Seyfried) who is writing her obituary puts it, “she puts the bitch in obituary.” Her client is truculent, a control freak and that line is probably the best one in the film. Not that it sets out to be a comedy. In fact, it’s not clear what kind of film it wants to be. It’s so lacking in direction that Mark Pellington, the man at the helm, doesn’t seem to know either.
It starts off decently enough. Harriet is a nightmare, and not just because of her control freakery. She’s bored to tears, living by herself in the lap of luxury and having everything done for her. It’s no wonder she feels like giving up, although none of that excuses how difficult and downright rude she can be. So the idea of her own obituary gives her something to think about and, inevitably, she has it all planned out. All journo Anne has to do is visit the people on the list – lots of them – and get them to say something nice about her. Not as easy as it sounds.
But from there the story starts to meander all over the place. Harriet mentors a feisty girl from the local children’s home. The three of them go on a road trip to see Harriet’s estranged daughter and hopefully build some bridges. And she becomes an unlikely presenter on a local radio station where they don’t have a play list: the DJs choose all the music themselves. She’s no great shakes on the air, but her taste in music is first rate. But while all this is going on, the obituary is repeatedly overshadowed, to the extent that it’s almost forgotten. Which points to the story’s biggest weakness: if it has to be embellished so much, there’s just not enough there in the first place. Not even if you build it around a character like Harriet.
Thankfully, MacLaine makes Harriet believable and, while she doesn’t get more likeable over the course of the film, you grow to understand her. That said, the reveal towards the end of the film about the reason behind her behaviour is way too sudsy. What makes her enjoyable as a character is that she’s never a sweet little old lady, nor is she shown in soft focus: she’s one of several cantankerous older women that MacLaine has played in the past – remember her in Bernie? And Amanda Seyfried makes a good sparring partner as the journalist.
Despite its two leads, The Last Word really doesn’t hang together and starts splitting at the seams very early on. It’s getting a limited cinema distribution and would be far happier on a small screen so, unless you have a little bijou cinema showing it nearby, wait until the DVD or digital release. In the meantime, you can always spend a Sunday afternoon indulging in some of MacLaine’s memorable performances.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Shirley MacLaine speaks exclusively to us about The Last Word and her acting plans for the future. Read the interview here.