'The Last Word'
The nice thing about ‘The Last Word’ is that it offers a chance to see Shirley MacLaine grouch it up and prove that she still has the goods. Unfortunately, that’s the only nice thing that can be said about the movie.
There was a time when MacLaine was one of the brightest stars in Hollywood. Long before her brother Warren Beatty took the town by storm, MacLaine headlined masterpieces like ‘The Apartment’ and ‘Sweet Charity’, gradually extending her star into middle age by playing comically crabby characters. Unfortunately, as good as MacLaine is at finding the humor in the old and bitter, she’s long since been limited to exclusively repeating that role. ‘The Last Word’ is something of a bottoming out point for the actress on this endless downward trajectory of typecasting. It might not be the worst movie that the great actress has ever made, but it sure can feel like it.
MacLaine plays Harriet, one of those hateful and spiteful old bitties who despises everyone in her life for not being her (and she likely hates herself plenty as well). She’s alienated everyone to the point that the only people in her lives are her employees, and they hate her more than anyone. Fortunately, Harriet has a plan to secure her legacy. She’s going to blackmail the local newspaper (which she saved a few times in her past as a powerful advertising executive) into writing up a beautiful obituary that makes her come off like a heroine. She’s assigned an obit writer named Anne (Amanda Seyfried), an embittered employee with dreams of literary grandeur. From there, the older woman teachers the younger woman the value of refusing to compromise and the younger woman teaches the older women the value of learning to love others. That all peaks with a road trip to make right with Harriet’s estranged daughter (Anne Heche). Ho-hum. You get it already, right?
The whole thing trudges along slowly and fairly aimlessly with an irritating sense of inevitability. There’s no real shock to hearing an old lady swear anymore, even though writer Stuart Ross Fink seems to think it’s hilarious. It’s not remotely moving to see the crusty old lady and the struggling youngster become besties even though director Mark Pellington (‘The Mothman Prophecies’) delivers all the emotional beats as if they were surprising and meaningful. Not so much. It’s as creaky as it sounds and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the leads also pick up a nine-year-old wiseass (AnnJewel Lee Dixon) along the way to add an extra generation to the culture clash comedy. The movie plays out as a collection of feel-good comedy clichés with no laughs and even less emotion despite all the heartstring pulling. This might be passable as a TV movie given that the cast would be surprising on the small screen. As a theatrical release, it’s an embarrassment.
At the center of things is the eighty-something Shirley MacLaine proving that she still has the screen presence, confidence and talent to carry a film. It’s just a shame that somehow this was the best project available to her. It’s deeply saddening that great actresses like MacLaine are treated so poorly by Hollywood in their autumn years. There aren’t many movies designed for retirement-aged performers in general, but actresses tend to be particularly left in the lurch. She’s been essentially absent from screens for so long that an awards-gobbling comeback role sure would be welcome right about now. Unfortunately, since she isn’t British, she doesn’t have an industry with any interest in supporting the talents of elders.
Then again, it wasn’t that long ago that MacLaine did get a damn good role to show off her gifts in Richard Linklater’s brilliant and tragically underseen ‘Bernie‘. Perhaps audiences are every bit to blame as the industry when it comes to Hollywood’s unfortunate tendency to let great actresses disappear once they’ve reached a certain age.