As the opening credits roll for Mark Pellington’s The Last Word, we hear a gentle piece of jazz, of the Woody Allen ilk, playing over old, black and white photos of Shirley MacLaine, which adorn the screen. At this point it feels as though we may be in for a treat, a film that seems to be taking a romanticised view of cinema, perhaps allowing the filmmaker licence when we hit the more affectionately predictable moments. And yet as the film progresses, and the such moments arrive, they’re still hugely jarring.
MacLaine plays Harriet, a retired businesswoman who committed her life to being the very best she could be. What she didn’t bear in mind, however, were other people – including her ex-husband, and long-lost daughter. Convinced she won’t be remembered for doing anything decent, she personally hires obituary writer Anne (Amanda Seyfried) to make her life seem rewarding, and as though she touched many people in many different ways – and so wants the first draft of her obituary in advance. Anne struggles to find anything positive to say about this woman, and so the pair decide to make amends before its too late, and bring joy to people’s lives – just so Harriet can eventually pass away knowing that people will read the local paper’s kind words and think of her as a woman she never really was.
This isn’t the first time in recent memory that MacLaine has played a tricky customer of this nature. It was the same in Elsa & Fred and in Bernie too – as she plays bitter people with a chip on their shoulder with a brilliant conviction – which seems somewhat surprising given how kind a face she has. But what she brings to these roles, and what Harriet has in abundance, is a semblance of vulnerability to contrast with the hardened demeanour. She has these big eyes that seem to have a lifetime of stories behind them, some filled with happiness, and many filled with pain. It makes her such a magnetic protagonist, and brings a depth to roles that in some cases, hasn’t even been developed on the page.
That being said, and this is the film’s greatest shortcoming – is in spite of the fragility and human elements to her personality, she’s still too much of a challenge to get behind. There’s a reason nobody has said anything nice about Harriet, it’s because she’s a bit of a dick. It just means that when she does start to come good, as it were, we never really invest in her cause. I mean, she openly admits that she wants to befriend and mentor a disenfranchised, young black child, just as it will read well in her obituary. So when she does, literally mentor a young, disenfranchised black child – there’s no sincerity about it, and as such it’s difficult to applaud. Much like the movie itself.