Here’s a new movie rule: If you’re going to sit through a Sundance “crowd-pleaser,” complete with prefab situations and cheeseball snark and life lessons, it’s always better if that movie stars Shirley MacLaine. In “The Last Word,” she plays — what else? — a cutely difficult pie-eyed pixie-curmudgeon who is always scolding everyone and telling them how to improve themselves. I can think of many films where she played a similar role that outclass this one — like “Terms of Endearment,” “In Her Shoes,” “Bernie,” or “Postcards from the Edge.” Those were real movies. “The Last Word,” written by Stuart Ross Fink and directed by Mark Pellington, is an eager assemblage of quasi-fake setups and two-stroke characters. It makes “Little Miss Sunshine” look…organic. (It’s also not nearly as well-made.) Yet MacLaine, who isn’t above falling into high-concept shtick herself, hasn’t lost the gift of spontaneity. At 82, she’s spry and fearless. The movie is glorified claptrap, but she hitches it to her acerbic zest for life and acting and walks away with it.
MacLaine plays Harriet Lauler, an affluent dame who lives by herself in a beautiful Colonial in the town of Bristol, where she once led her own advertising agency. Harriet possessed talent and drive, and still does, but she suffers from what the film calls “obsessive-compulsive personality disorder,” which means that she has to control the world around her and do every last thing her way. She has alienated everyone she’s ever known; at one point, a man calls her hateful, and the camera inches down to show us that he’s wearing a priest’s collar. But the way a movie like “The Last Word” works, this is all our cue to see that, deep down, Harriet is nurturing a heart of gold.
She’s got an ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall), a daughter she hasn’t seen for 20 years, and a passel of gardeners and housekeepers who know to stay out of her way, because she’ll just end up telling them how to do their jobs. After accidentally OD-ing on sedatives and red wine (or did she kind of mean to do it?), Harriet takes the action that launches the movie into the orbit of ha-ha cute-ville: She decides that she wants to have her newspaper obituary written…right now. While she’s still healthy and hale. So she marches into the offices of the Bristol Gazette, a struggling newspaper she helped keep afloat with her advertising, and is introduced to Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), the paper’s obituary writer. It’s a ridiculous request, and these two have absolutely nothing in common, which means that within seconds their quibbling/affectionate May-December buddy mentorship has been totally nailed down.
Harriet wants Anne to write an