Shirley MacLaine enters beautiful scowl first in “The Last Word,” a sweet-and-sour dramatic comedy that would be unbearable without her. She plays Harriet Lauler, a retired advertising executive who has effectively walled herself up in a grand, immaculate house that’s a testament to her former glory but so quiet it might as well be her mausoleum. Frankly, it’s a wonder no one has strangled her yet. Unapologetically domineering, Harriet all but grabs the garden clippers from her exasperated gardener and pushes her blissfully patient cook out of the kitchen. She knows better, does better, always has, always will. Her elbows aren’t sharp; they’re lethal.
There is more to Harriet than meets the eye, of course, including secrets and lost connections, and if the movie simply stayed focused on her it might have been considerably better. The director, Mark Pellington, who scatters photos of the young MacLaine in the house like religious relics, clearly adores her. Some of the movie’s most satisfying moments show Harriet alone in her house, lingering in its empty rooms, needlessly fussing over its sterile perfection and staring into the distance. MacLaine, 82, holds the screen effortlessly.
Too bad she has to share it. The story proper begins after Harriet has a brush with death and, somewhat worriedly, decides that she needs to arrange an obituary worthy of her status. She makes a study of the genre, underlining what goes into a good death notice: friends (she has none); family (a question mark); and something unusual, a so-called wild card. This leads her to the local newspaper, which owes her for her longtime patronage, and straight to Anne (Amanda Seyfried), a reluctant obituary writer who’s dragooned into service.
It’s as counterfeit as it comes, but just when you think it couldn’t get more artificial, Harriet and Anne are joined by Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), a young black girl. Harriet more or less goes shopping for Brenda at a community center, having decided that she needs a charity case to pad out her obituary. There’s some scathing satirical potential in this setup – the privileged white doyenne exploiting black poverty – but that would require backbone, edge and honesty, none of which this movie finally has.
And so Harriet, Anne and Brenda bond, smile and even dance, sharing and learning from each other with forced laughter and false tears.
The Last Word
Cast: Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, AnnJewel Lee Dixon
Director: Mark Pellington
Rated R (salty language)