THE LAST WORD: An Easy But Tropey Watch
The Last Word is an easy, funny watch, with great performances from MacLaine and Seyfried, but on the whole, isn't very substantial.
Not too long into watching The Last Word, it began to feel like an attempt to match the charm of the 2015 film Grandma. However, in its attempt, The Last Word falls into a number of plot traps ending up entirely too conservative and contrived to come close to the effortless authenticity of Grandma.
The film relies on tropes to manipulate its audience into believing they experienced a movie that was able to deliver them a comedy that also touches their emotions, but to the attentive viewer, it is a predictable journey with a couple of good laughs sprinkled in.
A Witch’s Tale
Shirley MacLaine stars as Harriet Lauer, a type A, alpha woman who has built herself an empire but with no one to share it with. She’s comfortable in who she is but the loneliness gets to her and she decides to take her own life. Yet, before she does, she is captivated by an obituary for a woman who was adored by many.
She goes to the newspaper and demands the obituary writer, Anne (Amanda Seyfried), write her obituary for her to approve before she dies, unable to stand the idea that the perception of her legacy would be “left to chance”. While conducting interviews, Anne finds that every contact of Harriet’s hates her and cannot say a single nice word about her. She turns in a generic paragraph about Harriet and informs her about the nasty impression she has left on others’ lives.
Harriet is unsatisfied, refusing to give up. Coming to Anne after reading hundreds of obituaries, Harriet has found the four qualities to a great obituary: being loved by family, respect from co-workers and peers, touch the life of the less fortunate and a wildcard. The two embark on checking off these requirements, finding along the way a larger than life eight-year-old, Brenda (Ann’Jewel Lee) – a life to mold and uncover Harriet’s true passion for music.
Harriet gets the last chance to reshape her legacy while she helps Anne find her full potential. On a trip to reconcile with Harriet’s daughter, her, Anne, and Brenda find a family with one another and a love that changes their lives.
Trope Traps and Charismatic Characters
In a nutshell, The Last Word is a story about two unlikely characters that embark on a quest that ultimately leads them to develop a deep bond. It’s the perfect set-up to have the balance of comedy and sentimental moments that’ll give the audience the teary eyes they want and leave uplifted.
Seyfried is a great actress who, because of her blonde hair and sweet face, gets trapped into rom-coms. It was refreshing to see her as an edgy, indie chick that resembled a modern version of Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You. She was witty and guarded while at the same time having the idealistic eagerness that her character needed and fits the softness she has herself.
The relationship that developed between her and Harriet was strong and you could feel the admiration that they had for one another, even with their sarcastic exchanges. MacLaine’s natural spark saves her from being a character that you feel bad for because of their age, but at the same time she wasn’t given as much spirit as Lily Tomlin’s character in Grandma – liberating her from the typecast completely. Regardless, she is as daring as ever and always commits to her performances wholeheartedly.
Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid
Perhaps Stuart Ross Fink, the film’s writer, has some Harriet in him, because everything in this film is completely structured. The joy of watching a movie is finding something to grasp onto and hold close to yourself, a connection you find in the subtleties of the film’s text. Yet, you know that the message of this movie is that “it is never too late”, because it says so in the trailer, but also the line is literally said by Harriet.
The question at hand is, what it means to have a legacy in terms of the perception of yourself versus what others think about you. If the plot didn’t signal that it matters more what you think of yourself, Harriet makes sure you get it when she tells Anne “I am who I am”.
There was potential for Fink to hand over the reins to the camera. The film opens with a sequence going through Harriet’s day. It effectively introduces the type of woman Harriet is by her interactions with other people and wandering around her tasteful home. But the most powerful image is shown through close-ups of the walls and dressers, that show in all her frames are only pictures of her. It shows her pride in her independence and that she only has herself to keep her company, even though she is surrounded by people. There are very few moments that let the visuals breathe enough to speak for themselves.
The Almost Undetectable Flaw
I found it unsettling that in fulfilling the requirement of touch the life of a child Harriet chimes in to make it more inspiring that the child should “be black”. It is outrageous to Anne when Harriet says this, but it’s supposed to be dismissed as something a woman of her age would say. It’s possible to also dismiss it based on this context, but also, you would hope that we’ve progressed enough to eliminate that concept all together.
It is almost nit-picky to point out this as a fatal flaw since other movies do have similar moments, but in this movie, it was unnecessary. Lee was a great fit as Brenda because of her personality that was as much endearing as it was snarky, not because of her race.
Aside from the characters, there isn’t anything very substantial to the film as a whole. The Last Word is meant to be an easy watch, an enjoyable story that hits all your emotions. But just because it is supposed to be a pleasant watch doesn’t mean you assume that the audience lacks the ability to interpret on their own. It creates a distance that tells you that you’re watching other people experience something versus allowing the audience to slip into the world and feel like they’re a part of the journey.
Is Amanda Seyfried in an edgier role enough to make you want to see this movie? What do you think of aging actors getting put into roles as the bitter elderly? Let me know in the comments below!
The Last Word was released in the US on March 3, 2017. For all international release dates see here.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.