The Last Word ✮✮1/2
A Woman Called Harriet
by Glenn Lovell
Over the last decade or so, the Shirley MacLaine faithful — i.e. we boomers of a certain age — have had to make do with glorified MacLaine cameos, among these her wealthy wax-works widow in Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” and her loud and tactless visitor to Downton Abby. Colorful both, but they left us wanting more.
“The Last Word” doesn’t grant MacLaine, who turns 83 next month, quite that, but it does place her at the center of a busy character study that brings to mind, in spots, the Oscar-nominated “A Man Called Ove.”
Like the main character in that Swedish import, MacLaine’s Harriet Lauler is overbearing, unpleasant, a once-trailblazing businesswoman who, in retirement, lives to disagree — with neighbors, shop owners, former employees, an attending physician (called in after her latest suicide attempt). And that doesn’t even take into account a grievously wronged ex-husband (the always reliable Philip Baker Hall) and estranged daughter (Anne Heche, in an undernourished walk-on).
Harriet’s all-purpose comeback: “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”
Scanning the obit page of her local paper, Harriet deduces that death notices are cookie-cutter formulaic: quotes from family members followed by quotes from colleagues, followed by quotes from someone “touched by” the decease’s largesse. Then there’s the mysterious x-factor, that certain something that sets the deceased apart.
Lacking family and friends to sing her praises, Harriet cuts to the fourth element, the “wild card.”
She calls on the editor of the local newspaper and demands that he assign his obit writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), the task of cobbling together a fawning remembrance. (It helps that Harriet has invested in the paper, which, like most neighborhood papers, is on its last legs.) One by one, Anne dutifully contacts the people on Harriet’s “friend” list; each, in an hilarious montage, proclaims the woman supremely unlovable. “Just a hateful, hateful woman,” nods her pastor, surprised by his own rancor.
“She puts the bitch in obituary,” Anne doesn’t need to tell her editor.
And so the stage is set for that Hollywood staple, the old fogey comedy-road picture, wherein, after much generational sparing, young people come to understand and respect their elders. Harriet may not have lived a very happy life, but she has lived. And this means, in the end, she has something sage to impart about serving “our better selves.”
Written by Stuart Ross Fink and helmed by, of all people, the usually conspiratorial Mark Pellington (“Arlington Road,” “The Mothman Prophecies”), this grouchy-to-heartfelt indie proves something of a mixed bag. It looks great (thanks to cinematographer Eric Koretz’s arty use of shadows) and is more than capably directed in an understated manner, but the plot fairly buckles under mounting contrivances, one piled atop another to facilitate shifts in focus and tone, from bleak to heartfelt to downright silly (for a tacked-on comic caper).
Seyfried, who probably signed on for the opportunity to meet a Hollywood icon, does the best she can with what she’s given; but her journalist appears to have been created by someone who never worked as a journalist. For the sake of carefully spaced revelations, she saves the most obvious questions about Harriet’s past until well after their first sit-down. Also, Brenda (Ann’Jewel Lee), a conveniently unencumbered kid who becomes Harriet’s pet project/sounding board, seems more plot device than integral character. Her presence feels more than a little patronizing.
Thank goodness, then, for the ever feisty MacLaine, who turns this project into a late-career workout. No, her insufferably disagreeable Harriet isn’t in the same league as her manipulative Aurora Greenway (“Terms of Endearment”) or Doris Mann (“Postcards from the Edge”). But she is an amusing, unpredictable force of nature. What’s more, as the film progresses the character seems to shed years, until she’s positively buoyant, even girlish. “I am who I am,” Harriet tells her reluctant biographer, sounding a whole lot more like a legendary actress named MacLaine than some cranky eccentric who, nearing the end, begins inexplicably to care what people think.
THE LAST WORD ✮✮1/2 With Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Sadoski. Directed by Mark Pellington; scripted by Stuart Ross Fink. 108 min. Rated R (but could be PG-13 for colorful language)