In what’s likely to be AARP’s movie of the year, the Mark Pellington dramedy The Last Word, Hollywood legend Shirley MacLaine gets top billing. As it turns out, that’s not such an unusual occurrence of late. The 83-year-old star also received top billing for last year’s Wild Oats with Jessica Lange and 2014’s Elsa & Fred with Christopher Plummer. But it was her supporting turn as a spiteful dowager in 2011’s Bernie that put some pep back in MacLaine’s career.
And so it’s perhaps it’s no coincidence that The Last Word casts MacLaine as another spiteful dowager, albeit one who’s eminently redeemable. The star plays Harriet Lauler, a retired businesswoman with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder and a death wish. After a failed suicide attempt, Harriet decides that she ought to see to one last project: her legacy. And so she marches right down to the local paper, throws her weight around with the editor, and hijacks the one-woman obituary department, Anne (Amanda Seyfried). Harriet tells Anne, “You are going to help shape a legacy instead of just transcribing it.”
Of course the scenario of a woman coaching her own obituary writer is wrong six ways from Sunday, but the script contrives influence for Lauler, and MacLaine sells her force of will, enough to get audiences to shrug and settle in for a serious case of the cutes. Lauler lays out four elements to a really great obituary: “One: the deceased should be loved by their families. Two: The deceased should be admired by their coworkers. Three: The deceased must have touched someone’s life unexpectedly. And if said person was a minority or cripple, so much the better…And the fourth, that’s the wild card.”
Using that outline, The Last Word pretty much writes itself, as Lauler must confront her ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall) and, later, her adult daughter (Anne Heche); get a fun new job and, later, return to the company that was her life’s work to do something audacious; and, oh dear, befriend a little black girl named Brenda (Ann’Jewel Lee). From the mouth of this babe: “You gotta be something.” Aww. Naturally, while shadowing Harriet, Anne accrues life lesson after life lesson, as well as a boyfriend in Thomas Sadoski’s radio-station manager Robin (fun fact: Seyfried and Sadoski married earlier this month, so The Last Word was good for something).
In spite of its heart-tugging ruthlessness, I’d be lying if I said The Last Word were without its simple pleasures. It’s still fun to watch MacLaine ply her trade, and the film’s R-rating signals a (mostly superficial) willingness to be more than a TV movie, the employment of little black Brenda having at least a smidgen of winking self-awareness to it. Pellington knows his movie is more or less bad, but Shirley there’s an audience for it.