The feisty Shirley MacLaine has lived her life and spoken her mind on her own terms. That makes her the perfect casting to play Harriet Lauler, a retired take-charge businesswoman in “The Last Word.” This is one of those occasions where fact and fiction blur into a thing of creative beauty.
It’s good it did because MacLaine is the only reason to tout this movie.
The latest offering from the Oscar-winning actress has her playing a strong-willed woman who ran her marriage and company with an iron fist. That was necessary because she grew up in a time when women weren’t encouraged to do much more than stay at home.
Now, in the final years of her life, Harriet begins to worry about her legacy. She decides to contact Anne (Amanda Seyfried), the obituary writer for the local newspaper. Harriet wants to make sure the final words written about her are respectful of the life she’s lived.
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The problem is that Anne can’t find a single person who wants to speak kindly of Harriet because she was so vicious in life and work. Harriet’s only option is to re-write history before her obit is written.
The 82-year-young MacLaine brings a spunky energy and just enough caustic tone to the character to make her both someone to fear and someone to love. The key to this is that MacLaine, even when her character begins to change, plays the role with the same power and force.
One of the best scenes is a confrontation between Harriet and her estranged daughter (Anne Heche). The fact the daughter is the same cold, driven person should have been a painful reality for Harriet. Instead, she finds great joy in knowing that she drove her daughter to be a happy and successful woman.
There’s a nice balance with Seyfried’s character, whose writing career has been held back by fear and abandonment. These are emotional elements that connect the characters and makes their relationship resonate with a warm truth.
All that is needed because the script by Stuart Ross Fink is full of story potholes. Harriet is certainly a force of nature but being able to talk her way into a job in seconds without having any experience comes across as a plot gimmick and not the natural flow of character development.
There’s also a plot thread where Harriet begins mentoring a foul-mouthed 9 year old (the reason for the R rating). There never is a connection between the two and comes across as more of a distraction than an attraction.
And, Fink never takes any real chances as the story ends in a painfully predictable manner.
What ends up being the only strength of the script is the examination of one’s life story. Decisions made throughout the years all come together to make the person who will be remembered when they are gone. The only question is whether they will be remembered fondly or in fear.
One day, there will be the time to look back at MacLaine’s career and this film will help recall her work fondly even in a movie that has so many writing problems.
The Last Word
Cast: Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, AnnJewel Lee Dixon, Philip Baker Hall, Tom Everett Scott
Director: Stuart Ross Fink
Rated R (language)
Opens: Friday, March 24