Movie Review: Shirley MacLaine always gets “The Last Word”

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Shirley MacLaine has made a wonderful curmudgeon in her dotage. That covers pretty much every movie since “Terms of Endearment.”

“Bernie” was something of a high-water mark in this third act of her storied career, playing a woman so unpleasant a whole town is reluctant to punish her adorable murderer.

So “The Last Word” is no more of a stretch than say, “Guarding Tess,” which had her playing a reviled former First Lady back in 1994.

The idea was to throw Shirley, as a somewhat hip, very self-aware old lady facing her twilight with a determination to control things to the end — including her small town paper’s obituary — and Amanda Seyfried as that bullied obit writer, and just profanity to earn an R-rating (give it some AARP-approved “edge”) and let this Force of Nature make it all worthwhile.

She almost does. But this cutesie collection of confrontations, musical montages and half-based homilies about it’s “never too late” to make your life matter lets her down.

Harriet Lawler ran a local advertising agency in her younger days. She must have been a terror. Because nobody still there has anything nice to say about her.

Her ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall) is more circumspect. “Control is very IMPORTANT to her.”

Her Japanese gardener (Gedde Watanabe, in a role out of the 1940s), her hairdresser (Sarah Baker), even her gynecologist (“the angriest vagina this side of China”) can attest to that.

Her estranged daughter (Anne Heche) won’t even comment.

But those opinions, that view, just won’t do. Which is why the lonely, bitter Harriet insists that her Bristol, California’s best obituary writer (Seyfried) get on the job now, and write one that suits Harriet.

The researching part is amusing enough, with young Anne realizing who “put the ‘bitch’ in obituary.” But Harriet, who has her suicidal moments, has a solution. She’s analyzed Anne’s obits, and those of others, and summarizes the form thusly.

Every obituary says that the deceased was “loved by their family.” They were “admired” by colleagues and business associates. They “touched someone’s life unexpectedly.”

And then there’s “the wild card,” what journalists would call the “hook.” It’s that quirky, unexpected something that makes reading about someone’s life a pleasure.

Harriet and Anne set out to find those four ingredients, manufacturing them if they have to.

Seyfried gives Anne a casual, coarse informality that the hard-drinking (and capable of cursing) Harriet pretends to find grating. MacLaine is properly imperious, flinty and mean.

But the things these two have to put across are just cut-and-paste adorable, knocking the life right out of the money. The “hooligan” moppet whose life Harriet decides to “touch in an unexpected way” (AnnJewel Lee Dixon) screams “CHILD ACTOR” in all the worst ways. “At-risk kid” never crosses or mind.

The idea that elderly Harriet, with seemingly a very limited record collection (The Kinks are the octogenarian’s fave), can bully her way into a drive-time job on the local alternative/college radio station is cute, but a stretch.

Rapprochement with her estranged relations makes for scenes that go nowhere.

But the stars play believable story arcs, and Seyfried never lets herself or Anna seem cowed or awed by the Great MacLaine. And Tom Everett Scott (newspaper editor eager to please) and Joel Murray (former employee of Harriet’s) make solid impressions.

It’s no use wishing “The Last Word” had come out better. But with plenty of examples of failed-films aimed at an older audience to compare it to, an “I’ve seen worse” makes for some consolation.

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MPAA Rating: R for language.
Cast: Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Tom Everett Scott, Philip Baker Hall, Anne Heche, AnnJewel Lee Dixon
Credits: Directed by Mark Pellington, written by Stuart Ross Fink. A Bleecker St. release.
Running time: 1:48

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