Beyond the lead star of The Last Word, one of the greatest actresses of all time and we’ll get to her, the trajectory of director Mark Pellington’s career has had some odd shifts. I first was introduced to him with his terrorist thriller, Arlington Road, and since, he’s mostly gone down a dramatic feature film road with Henry Poole Was Here and I Melt With You. He continues that path in this film, one that is, at its base, a story of looking at your reflection at a late age and wanting to make those changes in your life so the memory of that reflection will not be forgotten and will mean something to those around you. It seems like a flighty existential type of movie but Pellington shoots it in a dynamic way that grips you and the great Shirley MacLaine owns it as only she can.
MacLaine plays Harriet Lauler, a retired former ad executive who lives in a big house, divorced and on her own. Control freak is a word that doesn’t even begin to describe Harriet, a woman that takes the shears away from her gardener to do it herself or cut her own hair at the stylist’s, giving way for a large portion of the people who know her an intense dislike for her. After a near death experience, Harriet has an idea and hires an obituary writer (Amanda Seyfried) to write her’s pre-death but, frustrating for the young headstrong scribe, no one has a single nice thing to say about her. This prompts another epiphany and spurs Harriet to make a bold move and change the final outcome of her life through a series of steps.
First and foremost, The Last Word is totally owned by Shirley MacLaine. It is a reminder to those of us who know her work well, as well as those who don’t, to recognize that before Nicole Kidman, Meryl Steep and others were the toast and talk of Hollywood starlets, there was Shirley, an incomparable figure of strength and grace who commands the screen anytime she’s on it. This film is just a testament to the fact that at age 82, she still very much has it. The wisdom in the scenes she has opposite Seyfried really shows the charm and charisma of this woman that the word icon feels a bit short of describing her and the experience may have rubbed off on the former Mean Girls star as well.
I’m able to look past a lot of the movie’s flaws to say that The Last Word is an enjoyable film in the end. I do feel like it could have been a bit shorter in its runtime had it cut out some of it’s weaker storytelling tropes, most notably the tendency for it to get into some lazy montages to push along the plot. These pieces only slow the momentum of this character-driven drama comedy and gives way to some of the film’s insecurities being little more obvious. I felt this in its need to push how likable it was trying to be in theses extra add-ons that felt almost egregious being that the story feels effortlessly endearing and every tacked on piece feels like an excess of chocolate syrup on this sundae. When you’ve made a forceful and controlling tyrant character a fun character to pal around with, you’ve done your job. Just let it be. 3/5