Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review: "The Last Word"

“The Last Word” is the sort of movie that’s made explicitly for an aged screen legend to provide them with one last moment in the spotlight, and maybe a shot at an Oscar. This is Shirley MacLaine’s star vehicle swan song, as surely as “Venus” was Peter O’Toole’s.

I liked the movie, especially MacLaine’s irascible turn as a hateful old woman who’s shown to have inner depths and redeeming qualities.

The role borrows a little too heavily from her iconic portrayal of Ouiser Boudreaux in “Steel Magnolias.” And the screenplay (by Stuart Ross Fink) starts off on an edgy note and becomes progressively more filled with hugs and clichés, right down to the obligatory road trip and chirpy kid sidekick.

Still, it’s a winning turn from a master thespian. Aspiring actors would do well to watch how MacLaine tosses in subtle little expressions and glances that bend the character’s dialogue and behavior into shades of other meaning.

As the opening vignettes make plain, Harriet Lauler is a pill. She seems to have no friends or relations. A wealthy woman in her 80s, all she does is putter around her mansion, waited upon by a team of put-upon servants she deems incapable of doing their jobs. She doesn’t like the gardener’s (Gedde Watanabe, forever Donger from “Sixteen Candles”) clipping of the hedges, so she takes over and sends him home. The cook gets the same treatment.

Then she stumbles across an obituary of someone she knew, and is struck by all the wonderful things people said about the woman. Harriet’s dilemma is clear: What will they say about me? Nothing nice, she’s sure -- because she has made sure.

So the ultimate control freak sets out to have the ultimate last word: commissioning her obituary while she’s still alive, so it meets with her approval.

Harriet seeks out Anne Sherman, the 30ish obit writer at the Bristol Gazette, and orders her obituary -- even providing a list of 200 people to talk to. Harriet can do this because her old advertising firm kept the smallish-town newspaper afloat, and the fumbling inheritor publisher (Tom Everett Scott) complies because he’s… grateful? Afraid? Hopes she can help their bottom line? It’s a little unclear.

Anne dutifully talks to the people, and finds no one with anything good to say. “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you,” one former employee quotes Harriet. Forbidden from talking to the ex-husband, Anne seeks him (Phillip Baker Hall) out anyway; he refuses to disavow Harriet’s warts but doesn’t regret marrying her.

When the first draft of the obituary is dead on arrival, Harriet takes her self-dealing to the next level and enlists Anne to help her do some benevolent/interesting things so there will be material to mine.

They visit a program for at-risk kids (“hooligans”), where the keen-eyed Harriet spots Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), a smart, mouthy girl railing against the stupidity of the Dewey decimal system. Harriet quasi-adopts her as a mentee, though we never really learn more about the girl other than she has plenty of sass and cutes to lighten things up.

Harriet also turns her newly helpful gaze upon Anne herself, asking about the essay book she’s always scribbling in -- but never shows anyone! -- and pushing her toward the hipster-handsome manager of the radio station that plays “independent music for independent minds.” She even dusts off her old record collection, waltzes into the same station and announces that she wishes to be a DJ.

(I found this whole sequence unintentionally hilarious, showing a tiny indie radio station with dozens of on-air talent hurrying about at all hours. Even huge radio offices more closely resemble crypts.)

Director Mark Pellington (“Going All the Way”) keeps things in a nice balance between comedy and pathos, showing us a portrait of a nasty person that we’re going to watch be painted over -- or have obscuring layers removed from -- to reveal a distinct, vibrant human.

“The Last Word” may not be the end-all in character studies, but it’s good enough to hold a place of honor on a legend’s filmography.

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