It's such a pleasure to see Shirley MacLaine back on screen in a leading role that I'm almost tempted to say it's worth sitting through something as formulaic and painfully contrived as "The Last Word." But let's not get crazy.
In the dramatic comedy, MacLaine stars as Harriet Lauler, a wealthy former businesswoman who wears her hard-edge reputation with pride. She's the type of person whom nothing seems to please -- early on, we witness her micromanage her hairdresser and gardener until they have no choice but to let her take over their duties herself. Harriet, though, realizes she's getting on in years and won't be around forever. And she's controlling enough that she refuses to leave a little thing like her obituary to chance.
As Harriet sees it, the solution is to rope Anne (Amanda Seyfried), the obit writer for the local paper, into preparing the death notice before she's passed on. Harriet tasks Anne with shaping a legacy that will ensure she's remembered glowingly. Easier said than done for a woman like Harriet, who's made more than her share of enemies along the way. "She puts the bitch in obituary!" as Anne puts it, which is about the apex of wit displayed by the film's script.
At Harriet's request, Anne also goes about procuring her an at-risk youth to mentor. That youth is Brenda, played by newcomer AnnJewel Lee Dixon, who has a spunky screen presence and capably holds her own against a heavyweight like MacLaine. At first, Harriet isn't interested in her as anything but a tool to prop up her legacy, but of course, that changes as time goes on. The problem is the movie's view of Brenda never develops as Harriet's does, so we barely learn anything about the girl or where she came from. Although we do know that she's got a high tolerance for meddling old white women.
The three end up on a road trip to visit Harriet's estranged daughter (Anne Heche) and naturally bond and learn valuable lessons along the way. Harriet may be unpleasant and fiercely independent, but as she and Anne get to know one another -- wouldn't you know it? -- beneath that curmudgeonly exterior lies a heart of gold. Oh, did I mention that in the middle of all this, Harriet somehow finds the time to become a respected local DJ? Well she does, and it's just as silly and unconvincing as it sounds.
Stuart Ross Fink's screenplay offers little in the way of surprises, but MacLaine knows her way around a withering glance and a cutting remark. A film that focused entirely on her, without getting weighed down with extraneous subplots, would likely have worked much better. Though MacLaine, Seyfried, and Dixon do what they can with the material they're given, these talented actors deserve much better.