If nothing else, “The Last Word” demonstrates that Shirley MacLaine still has the comic chops and screen presence that have made her a Hollywood legend. Unfortunately, not even she can make chicken salad out of this utterly artificial and manipulative movie, one that conveys not a single genuine emotion over the course of its running time.
You can sense old pro MacLaine and younger pro Amanda Seyfried exerting themselves as they pour their considerable collective charisma into the venture, but they’re beating the chest of a patient that has long since flatlined.
On paper, the story from first-time screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink has some promise; with MacLaine playing a rich old lady trying to ensure that she’ll leave behind a glowing obituary, you can imagine a women’s-picture mix of “Mr. Arkadin” and “A Christmas Carol,” with the star digging into the kind of short-tempered character she’s brought to life in recent years in films like “Terms of Endearment” and “Bernie.” Instead, we get a jumble of life lessons and barely-there characters desperately in need of a rewrite.
Harriet (MacLaine) is a retired businesswoman; once the head of her own advertising agency, she’s been spending her twilight years micro-managing her gardener (Gedde Watanabe) and housekeeper (Yvette Freeman, “Orange Is the New Black”). She accidentally-on-purpose mixes sleeping pills and wine, leading to a stomach pump, and she’s about to up the dosage when she notices the obits in the local paper.
They were all written by Anne (Seyfried), and Harriet is impressed with the journalist’s ability to make terrible people sound wonderful, so the rich lady hires the writer to get cracking on her obituary. Everyone Harriet sends Anne to talk to has little or nothing nice to say about her, so Harriet tries to mend some old fences and do some good deeds so that she’ll be better remembered.
This self-image improvement takes her in a number of directions, from going to work at a local indie radio station run by Robin (Thomas Sadoski, “The Newsroom”) to mentoring a young underprivileged girl named Brenda (Ann’Jewel Lee) to reconnecting with her ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall) and estranged adult daughter (Anne Heche). None of these subplots lead anywhere interesting, and poor Brenda becomes a literal prop for Harriet and Anne to drag around. (The script falls back on the desperate “it’s hilarious when little kids curse” stratagem with cringe-inducing regularity.)
There’s a basic lack of logic and continuity throughout, from Anne’s boss (played by Tom Everett Scott) telling her to take Harriet’s assignment, in the hopes that the old woman will bequeath some of her fortune to his struggling newspaper — because when rich people die, they always leave their money to other people’s for-profit ventures — to Harriet and Robin’s sparkly-eyed conversations about vinyl albums and The Kinks that sound nothing like any conversation anyone has ever had about vinyl albums or The Kinks. Also, there’s an entire subplot that makes no sense whatsoever, something about a videotape that explains why Harriet got fired from the agency she started, which the movie keeps returning to even though it has almost no bearing on the story.
One would hope that director Mark Pellington (“Arlington Road,” “The Mothman Prophecies”) would be enough of an established pro to paper over some of the screenplay’s shortcomings, but “The Last Word” has the kind of rough patches that one usually associates with first-timers at a low-budget film festival. The lighting is erratic, camera angles are often awkward, scenes drag on too long or abruptly end a few seconds early — it’s a miracle we never see the boom mic dip into frame.
MacLaine, as she reminded us in “Postcards from the Edge,” is still here, my dear, and filmmakers should be snapping her up and putting her to work in films that are smarter, sharper and better than “The Last Word.”