Shirley MacLaine gets ‘The Last Word’ in Mark Pellington’s newest dramedy, also starring Amanda Seyfried and Anne Heche. MacLaine is Harriet Lauler, a once successful businesswoman in tight control of every aspect of her life. As she reflects upon her accomplishments, she’s suddenly inspired to engage a young local writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), to pen her life’s story. When the initial result doesn’t meet Harriet’s high expectations, Anne sets out to reshape the way she is remembered, with Anne dragged along as an unwilling and unflattering accomplice. As the journey unfolds, the two women develop a unique bond which alters not only Harriet’s legacy, but also Anne’s future. ‘The Last Word’ is rated R for adult language.
‘The Last Word’ is a decent enough plot to entice its audience into checking it out. There has always been a certain curiosity to the kind of legacies that we as humans with our time on this world will leave behind, and what kind of words and sentences will be used to trigger our memories. This, in addition to the film’s hearty message of living for today and not being afraid to fail, is one that I take with great meaning and intention. Unfortunately, it had to come at the hands of a movie that is the exact counter opposite of such a quota. Saying that this is one of the most artificially emotional films that comes to mind simply doesn’t do enough. This is one that should be avoided at all costs because it doesn’t take the time or the transformation in its central character to merit the kind of somber finale that this film intended. On top of that, it’s trying to channel one too many emotional responses. It wants to be awkwardly funny with characters you despise, yet it also wants you to take pity upon said character when the inevitable rears its ugly head. One of these directions is fine, but to take both contradicts the other and leads us down a path of dishonorable proportions.
The story of this narrative revolves around Harriet’s redemption, especially when she finds out that many people were either afraid or terribly disgusted with a lot of her actions in her early life. These people range from her co-workers at a prestigious law firm, to her daughter who has wanted nothing to do with her for the better part of her existence. Over the course of the next 103 minutes, the story of Harriet trying to right her wrongs is interrupted and cast aside for Anne’s disappointing life. Contrived when it is trying to attain profound, and it never materializes to anything for the character it should be. Because this movie takes so much time in establishing and solving Anne’s own personal flaws, there’s very little time left for Harriet to become this person that makes us bask in her triumph by the end of the film. Sure, Harriet is helping Anne along the way to achieving the kind of dreams that she wants as a writer, but she does it at such a disrespectful cost along the way, often pausing the progress to critique or humiliate her in front of total strangers. There is simply no transformation to Harriet by film’s end, so we are kind of left with the same shadow of a human being living up to every nasty and honest thing being spread about her. A winding journey that essentially has no conclusion, but here’s the movie that tells us how important she was in the eyes of someone who knew her for two weeks. Bravo.
The performances aren’t half bad, even if their intended directions tiptoe the grounds of conventional storytelling. Shirley Maclaine still has the firepower of a scene-stealer, and commands that presence through many hearty laughs throughout the movie. Even if her character is moral garbage, Harriet is definitely someone who doesn’t balk at having a good time, and a lot of that resonates because of Maclaine’s own timely humor that rarely ever misses its mark. Amanda Seyfried is decent, even if she is playing her usual stick here. Surprisingly, the two actresses from respectably vast age groups share the kind of depth in chemistry that would normally take a couple of films to channel. There are very few scenes when their characters aren’t together, and those make for the roughest in terms of transitional arcs from one subplot to the next. I also greatly enjoyed the work of AnnJewel Lee Dixon as the troubled youth that Harriet and Anne take in to better the former’s caring stature. Even if this insensitive subplot is honorable, Dixon is a delight to watch as a child with a few choice words to describe the awkwardness of those around her. I’m a sucker for kids cursing aloud, so AnnJewel won my heart and stole many of scenes even when her character felt flimsy to the importance of the movie.
The only other thing of notoriety was that of the pacing, which feels smooth in transition during the opening half hour or so, but then insufferably slow during the last act of the movie that tacks on far too much. It’s odd that the film can feel two different kinds of sequence storytelling speeds, but ‘The Last Words’ accomplishes this rare feat by elevating its story as it goes to contrived levels. I would’ve preferred that the film stick with that first act more, as much of its script focused more on the issue at hand of the people that Harriet has wronged over her life. Anne’s story is OK, but it isn’t one that feels necessarily important to the urgency of Harriet’s disposition, and so much of this tier of the story should’ve been left on the cutting room floor in favor for Harriet receiving tough love in consequences for the things that she has done. A direction that goes virtually unexplored and feels miles away the deeper that we immerse ourselves in this emotionally unstable script.
The Last Words of this particular film don’t generate the kind of somber or important message that the film had intended. Maclaine still slices with sharp precision in three-dimensional characteristics, but unfortunately for her the movie that accompanies is an uneven emotional mess that never hinders its potential behind a road of clarity for its morally blind protagonist. Even more so, there’s nothing of memorable merit to the bland dealings of this script, leaving Pellington’s latest dead on arrival before it finds the proper footing in collective tone. The lack of credibility in emotional truth undermines its own success.