Wednesday was International Women's Day, so it's the perfect week to release something like , a movie centered on three generations of women, one with the kind of face that doesn't get a lot of leading roles in Hollywood releases these days.
The face belongs to 82-year-old Shirley MacLaine, and the last time I saw that face was a few weeks back, as she stared, mouth open in abject horror, as her brother Warren tried to recover from one of the most historic live television flubs of all times. Thankfully, she lived through the trauma.
In The Last Word she plays Harriet Lauler, a woman not too far removed from her Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment character Aurora Greenway. Both are wealthy, stubborn perfectionists; both wander around their immaculate two story homes, with only the help to keep them company. And both are difficult — to say the least — mothers.
But Harriet is in her 80's, and knows she hasn't got much time left. When a (possibly not so accidental) drug overdose sends her to the hospital, she begins to question her legacy. Turning to the obituaries, she decides, perfectionist that she is, that she'd better get that obituary written before she's actually gone. Noting a series of obits written about people she knew — and knew to be jerks — she seeks out the obits' writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), and drafts her into the role of personal obit writer.
Harriet is nothing if not self-aware, so it's a tad unbelievable when she's surprised that no one in the list of people she sent Anne to interview had anything nice to say about her — including a Father at her church who says he doesn't like to use the word hate...but he haaaaaates her. And this all illustrates one of the biggest issues with the film's script: events and characters are included because they fit a mold, not because they are in any way authentic.
While Harriet had created a successful advertising business on her own, somehow we are to believe that legacy was completely destroyed because of one tantrum she threw over 30 years earlier. We have to believe that because if we didn't, there would be no reason for Harriet to spend the movie trying to build up an instant legacy.
Part of her quest involves instant good works, via mentoring an "at risk youth," who, yes, turns out to be a sassy black kid named Brenda (AnnJewel Lee), who of course has a penchant for swearing and melting the hearts of icy rich white ladies.
It's also awfully convenient that writer Annie has mommy issues, and Harriet has a daughter who hates her, AND that Annie has a crush on a radio DJ, and Harriet is a closet audiophile. Throw in a road trip, the three gals swimming in a moonlit lake, and a scene of them dancing with abandon, and you'd have more than enough Chick Flick cliches for one movie. But no! That's not enough! There's also a shot of them about to perform a Harebrained Scheme™, walking towards the camera in slo-mo, while wearing dark glasses.
While it pleases me greatly to see Shirley MacLaine still getting leading roles, especially a role that helps play off one of her greatest performances, and her real-life parental difficulties, it's not doing her any favors when it's a movie filled with cliches older than she is.
The Last Word is currently playing at the Embarcadero Cinema.The Last Word