In these vehicles, the old stars play problem people: goofy, profane, ornery, or having a constellation of disagreeable traits. The movies, which have starred Sally Field, Lily Tomlin, Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda and, the champion of the genre, Robert De Niro, pair the veteran performer with a younger, less luminous actor. Misadventures ensue. Often a road trip is involved, or a senior sexcapade. Estrangements are healed, lessons are learned, an old parent is redeemed.
The latest in this line is THE LAST WORD, which stars Shirley MacLaine as Harriet Lauler, an 81-year-old retired advertising executive who decides she wants to influence how her obituary is written in her local newspaper. To that end, she strides into the office of the Bristol Gazette (California) and demands that the editor order the obituary writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried) to research and write said obituary. Harriet's wealth is inducement enough for the floundering paper, which hopes for a bequest because its existence is threatened by encroaching digital media.
The problem for Anne is that not one person on Harriet's long list of relatives and acquaintances has a good word to say about Harriet. She's rude, pushy, a control freak and a bully. She tells the gardener, the hairdresser, even her gynecologist how to do their jobs. The premise, dramatized in a hilarious montage of people attesting to Harriet's awfulness (“a hateful, hateful woman”), is promising, though the laughs mostly end there.
Anne's first draft of the obit displeases Harriet — not surprising, since the obituaries we read by Anne's hand are remarkably lame (professionally written obits, of which I have written a few, don't typically use the euphemism “passed away”). Harriet decides that to get the obit she wants, she will need to “touch someone's life unexpectedly — preferably a minority or a cripple.” Anne takes Harriet to a community center for at-risk kids in South Bristol, clearly the part of town where the minorities live. Harriet selects Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), a foul-mouthed nine-year-old, as the person whose life she will touch. Harriet and Anne tote little Brenda around with them on a series of adventures, punctuated with lots of dancing. Brenda is used as a Gary Coleman type, a tiny comedienne. Still, she fares better than the story's other minority, Harriet's African-American housekeeper, who speaks not a single line.
Somewhere in all this is a good story, about a lonely woman in her twilight years belatedly seeking to leave a meaningful legacy. But first-time screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink and director Mark Pellington focus mainly on the relationship between Harriet and Anne, who both have emotional lacunae in their lives. Harriet's adult daughter hasn't spoken to her in years, and Anne's mom walked out on her and her dad when Anne was three, leaving her only a desk globe to spin and dream of living in another place.
The two women bicker. Harriet balks at riding in Anne's messy car and says withering things about her writing. Anne calls Harriet on her bitchiness ("She puts the bitch in obituary!"). Anne has higher aspirations than the one-woman obit desk — in her spare time she writes essays.
As usual with modern movies, the writing is the weak link. The screenplay ventures boldly into areas without understanding them well. These include: newspaper work, the inner lives of older women, volunteerism, cardiac medicine (an unrealistically grim diagnosis by Harriet's doctor), and the radio business. Here's the radio part: Anne and Harriet find common ground in their love of music, particularly on the radio. Anne tells Harriet about her favorite freeform FM radio station, and immediately Harriet, with her mascot Brenda and a Radio Flyer red wagon full of LPs, marches into the station and demands a morning-drive air shift. The shift's current occupant is tossed out (“Did I just lose my job to a hundred-year-old woman?”), because, again, Harriet's wealth gives her clout (where there's a will, there's a way). The radio station, whose program director (Thomas Sadoski) has a wistful attachment to vinyl LPs, appears to be a college station, but somehow has paid disc jockeys.
Harriet slides into the radio slot with ease, operating the mixing board like a boss and serenading listeners with bits of life wisdom and Nina Simone's “Gin House Blues.” Her tastes also run to Baby Boomer favorites like Van Morrison and the Kinks, a tad unlikely for an octogenarian whose dusty LP collection includes Bobby Darin's “Mack the Knife.”Maybe Harriet's on-air playlist reflects the taste of the screenwriter, not a woman like MacLaine, who in real life hung out with Sinatra and the Rat Pack. MacLaine's own life history contributes one of the movie's best features, an array of wonderful photos from her life used to illustrate Harriet's past.
The narrative meanders in odd directions toward its inevitable life-affirming ending. Harriet reconnects with her estranged daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Heche), in a scene that has Harriet cackle at the prospect of meeting her grandchildren, because Elizabeth insists her mother first see a therapist. Harriet also has a rapprochement with her former husband, Edward (Philip Baker Hall), who you'd think might have at some point told Harriet she had grandchildren. Harriet enlists Anne and little Brenda in damaging the headquarters of her former ad agency, which kicked her out years ago. This act of vandalism is presented as a riotous triumph, but it made me worry on behalf of the little girl's mother. What have these white ladies gotten the child into?
As much as the filmmakers try to make us care about the sadness, ambitions and romantic yearnings of Anne, the movie belongs to MacLaine, whose powerful presence is its raison d'etre and main pleasure. We can still see in her face the delightful pixie from THE APARTMENT (1960), and her formidability blows nearly everything else off the screen. It's a commonplace to call an older entertainer a treasure, but there isn't anyone else like Shirley MacLaine. Maybe in her next incarnation (or hopefully before that), someone will write a better movie for her. 2 3/4 out of 4 stars.