With crotchety charm and sass Shirley MacLaine shines in ‘The Last Word’
By Kaely Monahan
How do you want to be remembered? What will your legacy be? And who gives a rat’s bottom if it’s true? In The Last Word, Shirley MacLaine’s Harriet Lauler, she cares very much, even though she scowls defiantly at the world.
Marketing queen with a tongue that can cut through flesh and men’s insecurities, MacLaine portrays an elder woman who at first glance is sour, wretched and downright awful. But “The Last Word” challenges the crotchety old woman stereotype with surprising finesse and hilarity.
When we meet Harriet, she’s harassing her gardener. He’s cutting the hedges from top to bottom, which is clearly the wrong way. It must be a bottom to top and—oh move over! Harriet is, unequivocally, a control freak. One who seems very familiar to anyone who has dealt with an overbearing boss—or perhaps you yourself can’t stand to see other people do things incorrectly.
She even butts her cook out of the kitchen and prepares her own meal. Harriet lives a lonely existence in a giant house that is only fractionally reminiscent of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. Sour, unlikeable, MacLaine imbues Harriet with a certain earnest fury. The world is turning but not consulting her—and it should.
By chance, she glances at the obituaries in her local newspaper and comes up with the idea that she will have her obit drafted before she dies. Perhaps not a novel idea in real life (there are plenty of obits standing in the wings, as it were, at most news organizations), but in “The Last Word” MacLaine is determined that her life be immortalized exactly as she desires.
Marching into the local paper, which she used essentially subsidize, Harriet throws out the editor-in-chief and demands to have a meeting with the obituary writer. Here we meet Amanda Seyfried. Young, millennial, with a bit of boho attitude to go with the chic, Seyfriend’s Anne is a dreaming realist. She’s a writer, or yearning to be one, but she has a secure job writing obituaries. One the side she writes essays that she shares with no one.
Being the force of nature that she is, Harriet volun-tells Anne that she will be writing her obituary and that she’s figured out the key parts to one and proceeds to tell her how to go about it. The resulting relationship is like two sheets of sandpaper against each other. Yet as the film progresses, the sheets smooth away the rougher edges and the true persons beneath are revealed.
For as charming and hilarious as the script is, these are highly nuanced performances and probably won’t get the acclaim they deserve. Ms. MacLaine is a legend in her own right, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that she takes to the role effortlessly. But the performance really is flawless. MacLaine knows when to fidget and when to sit still—you can see her thoughts as they cross her mind. Harriet is a woman on a mission to the very end.
Abrasive but ultimately kind at heart, MacLaine lends Harriet a real authenticity. As for Seyfried, she seems to shine next to MacLaine. They play off each other well, and it’s clear that both she and her character Anne benefited from working with MacLaine and Harriet.
But the breakout star in this film would have to be AnnJewel Lee Dixon as Brenda. While her role as the “unfortunate black kid from the projects” is cringe-worthy, Dixon’s performance is not. The Last Word is apparently her first feature film and she lights up the screen every time she is on. She takes the stereotype and turns it on its head—as much as the script will allow. Sassy, foul-mouthed and bold, she’s a mirror to MacLaine’s Harriet.
The Last Word is one of those films that can slide by as barely a blip on the radar, but it would be unfortunate for you to not see it. Funny, witty, and with a serious dose of tender-hearted brashness, it’s a film that will be remembered by all who see it.
• Kaely Monahan is a journalist, graduate of City University London and the creator of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews. Follow her @PopcornFans and @KaelyMonahan.