In The Last Word, Shirley MacLaine plays an octogenarian battle-ax who, in the opening moments, bullies her gardener, cook, and hairdresser.
Later, alone in her big house with no one left to push around, she downs a bottle of pills and a bottle of wine, which is either a suicide attempt, or just another day, or both.
It’s played for bleak laughs, and off MacLaine’s late-career image, forged in Terms of Endearment – a tyrant, but one whose intimidating armor and weapons, we’re meant to understand, are merely the equipment that strong women acquire to survive in our culture.
Here, she is Harriet, a retired ad exec and notorious control freak. When she spies the obituary of a former acquaintance in the newspaper, she decides she can leave nothing to chance and coerces the young obituary writer Anne (Amanda Seyfried) to draft one that will meet her specifications.
Hercules would be daunted by such labor – Harriet has no friends, no sympathetic colleagues, no un-estranged family – and Anne is no Hercules. She’s a writer with ambition but no courage, stuck at a dead-end print job and now saddled with the most unpleasant assignment of her career.
From such apparent mismatches are buddy movies made, and The Last Word hews to genre norms, helped by appealing leads and an unusual (if not entirely laudable) feat of screenwriting candor.
Harriet scripts her own obituary and decides it will be better if she is known to have provided volunteer assistance to a “minority or cripple” – and cynically sets about doing just that. Thus, the movie takes its own shamelessness (AnnJewell Lee Dixon joins the gang as a precocious mascot) and incorporates it into the plot, wearing it almost like insulation.
Fake friendship, of course, turns into real feeling. Other calculated Harriet initiatives also become sincere, and the parallel personal circumstances of the lead characters (family estrangement) converge amid jaunty road trips and several stand-up-and-cheer moments.
MacLaine gets two standing ovations. It's a problem. The Last Word is a love letter to the actress, but respect would have helped the movie more. She doesn’t need the applause – her sharpness, skill, and timing are obviously intact.
Watching her in The Last Word, in fact, I kept thinking how helpful it would have been to send her out on stage last month at the Oscars with woozy brother Warren. She would have spotted that bum envelope in a second, given Price Waterhouse a piece of her mind, and awarded Best Picture to the best picture.