“The Last Word” Fails to Meet its Ambitions

By Sophie Bennett, Staff Writer

Upon the Lunar New Year comes the feel-good film, “The Last Word, directed by Mark Pellington. The film brings together veteran actresses Shirley Maclaine, Amanda Seyfried and newcomer AnnJewel Lee Dixon.

Set in the town of Bristol, Harriet Lauler (MacLaine) is an elderly woman who has alienated her friends and family. Living alone in a beautiful and extremely clean house, Harriet’s controlling nature is immediately apparent. However, she is also shown to be depressed from loneliness. The years of solitude have obviously taken a toll on her, and she decides to take measures into her own hands, contemplating death. One afternoon, she stumbles upon the obituary page of the Bristol Gazette and decides that before she dies she must be remembered well through an obituary.  This leads her to Anne (Seyfried), the obituary writer for the Gazette, who is an unsure young adult who is habitually risk-averse.

After instructed by her boss to assist Harriet, Anne finds herself stuck writing the premature obituary. In a moment of frustration, she confesses how hated Harriet is by the townspeople, insisting that she won’t be able to write anything nice. Harriet then has a crisis of identity, and decides she needs to improve her life before she dies. She begins to mentor Brenda (Dixon), a local girl enrolled in an “at-risk youth” program. The trio eventually form a friendship and the classic overdone, and heartwarming tale full of life lessons begins.

Although the intended sentiment was positive, the movie itself is lackluster. The plot is clumsily executed with an underwhelming conflict and uneven direction. Seyfried and Dixon both give stilted performances, struggling to navigate the odd and awkwardly-written dialogue. Although MacLaine is a veteran when it comes to this sort of role, not even her talent could save the movie. The majority of the jokes fell flat, and the performances often ruined the intended uplifting moments.

This was especially disappointing considering the opportunity the writer had. A story about a woman searching for life before it’s too late, symbolized through a premature obituary, has the potential to be a very compelling story. The major plot points — although poorly done — had real strength behind them. Harriet’s impulse decision to become a disc jockey at the age of 81 was warmly guffaw-worthy, yet it is too easy to become bored during the cringe-worthy radio scenes.

At one pivotal point, Harriet meets her estranged daughter who she hasn’t spoken to in years. The tender moment, clearly meant to be the film’s climax, was one of the most disappointing, underwhelming moments of the movie.

In particular, MacLaine has been one of the most influential actresses of Hollywood cinema. To see her in such a poor attempt at a feel-good Sundance film was disappointing. If the film had been re-written with different direction, it could have been much better. These heartwarming films can be excellent in their own right. “The Last Word” lived up to its sentimentality, was not able to achieve any real greatness.

Email Sophie Bennett at film@nyunews.com.

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