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‘The Last Word’ senselessly waters down the legend of MacLaine

MacLaine does an excellent job conveying a love of life that can come from truly owning oneself, but the senseless plot of ‘The Last Word’ oddly ends up drowning the whole project in unearned, misdirected sentimentality for the loss of a character who shouldn’t be lamented.

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The Last Word is far from the fitting tribute it wants to be to cinema icon Shirley MacLaine, building a world around her character’s fierce attitude, but denying it logic and charm. The film revels in ailing Harriet (MacLaine) being unapologetically sour, but spends most of its time with the people she has hurt or left. Knowing the end is near, Harriet hires young obituary writer Anne (Amanda Seyfried) to outline her life through by tracking down and interviewing those who have known her. Nearly everyone has nothing good to say. It turns out that writing Harriet’s obituary is supposed to be a way for Anne to figure out how to live life to its fullest, but is witnessing all of these negative outcomes, as well as how alone Harriet has become, the best way to teach Anne a lesson about seizing control of your life?

MacLaine’s performances have endured through the decades in such films as Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, Sweet Charity, and Terms of Endearment. These are uncompromising women who possess a dynamic spirit, even as life continually beats them down. Yes, The Last Word’s Harriet is also like MacLaine and her characters – independent and sassy – yet Harriet feels like a watered-down imitation of the legend, conjured to evoke MacLaine-based nostalgia without backing it up with a succinct story or feelings.

The negligent selfishness of Harriet’s everyday life, and the way in which she has pushed away all of those who wished to be close to her, is not captivating. Her abrupt and inconsiderate ways are a shock at first, but quickly fail to sustain forward momentum. Harriet needn’t be likeable, but when the film is adamant that we admire how she hasn’t changed for anyone and won’t apologize for hurting those who have got in the way of her personality, then why do we have to visit and re-visit her victims? The audience ends up involved in a repetitive crusade for a truth that’s disclosed in the very beginning of the story. After sending Annie on a depressing, wild good chase, she refocuses her last days on hijacking the lives of the writer (a perfect stranger who she is paying) and a random, disadvantaged child. They share a sing-along road trip that involves a minor felony – the extent of their connectedness. Put front and center is a reverence for Harriet bequeathing to her proteges a penchant for not caring about what other people think. It brings about a handful of playful and lighthearted moments, but still is brought down by how we have repeatedly been told that Harriet has been a cold wrecking ball through the lives of all who had the misfortune of knowing her before she was sick.

The focus on women knowing themselves is a much appreciated goal, but The Last Word hits every cliche on the way there, and throws in a baffling punch at Harriet’s estranged, emotionally abused daughter (Anne Heche). So odd is this interaction in which Harriet shows no interest in knowing her grandchildren or talking any further with a daughter who is willing to work on a toxic relationship despite what has been done to her, that it works to undo most of the audience’s goodwill towards Harriet from her interactions on the road. She maniacally laughs in her daughter’s face, leaving her even worse off than before. That is not just the stubborn independence of a lady who is running out of time; it’s an inflexible and cruel brand of sadism. What does this teach her pupils about life? This scene praises her individuality, but doesn’t back up her actions with any substantial proof as to why exactly we should believe that her rudeness and harmful demeanor is a virtue that an audience should laugh at, applaud, or mourn.

The Last Word plays upon the notion that we will feel a great sadness when the actress MacLaine eventually passes, and tries to channel it into what we should be thinking about Harriet. It rings false and cheap; the actress herself hasn’t diminished in ability, and she deserves better than this vehicle which tries to capitalize on her death. MacLaine does excellently convey a love of life that can come from truly owning oneself, but the senseless plot oddly ends up drowning the whole project in unearned, misdirected sentimentality for the loss of a character who shouldn’t be lamented.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Ricky D

    March 30, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    ouch. This is a harsh review. To be honest, I’ve never even heard of this movie.

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