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MacLaine works her magic, but ‘The Last Word’ drags on too long

“The Last Word” – “My life isn’t over yet.”

At 81, Harriet (Shirley MacLaine), has plenty of life to live, and she explains this fact to Anne (Amanda Seyfried), an obituary writer for the local paper, the Bristol Gazette.

After flipping through various obituaries of old colleagues and acquaintances, Harriet takes the most unusual approach of hiring Anne to write her obit before she dies. This retired, very successful ad executive is a perfectionist, and she wants to make darn sure that she has the last word about her passing, or at least approves the last words.

“The Last Word” has all of the potential for a lovely star vehicle for Hollywood legend Shirley MacLaine, and director Mark Pellington begins the picture with a lovely retrospective of her photos from childhood to adult. Right away, Pellington reminds us of MacLaine’s magic in front of the camera and stirs feelings of immediately wanting to watch “The Apartment” (1960), “Terms of Endearment” (1983) and “The Trouble with Harry” (1955).

Settling into one’s movie theatre seat in 2017, “The Last Word” offers no signs of trouble during the first hour of the picture’s 1-hour 48-minute runtime.

MacLaine begets a cantankerous, comedic spirit to Harriet, who believes that she can perform just about every task – large or mundane - better than anyone. She also believes that “most people are idiots”, and therefore, the figurative bars of other people mowing her lawn, preparing her dinner or running an ad agency are so terrible low, she only needs to casually step over them while blindfolded.

On the other hand, feeling fairly low about her non-existent or combative relationships over the past eight decades, Harriet seeks to make amends, and Anne – via direction from her boss (Tom Everett Scott) – now has a full-time job of writing her obituary and helping her embarkation on making positive changes. (Hopefully, no other locals will pass away over the next few weeks.)

Pellington and writer Stuart Ross Fink unveil a narrative in which Harriet attempts to grow as a person, albeit selfishly, because she wishes a more appealing obit, and Anne, in turn needs to learn some life lessons as well. The picture works best when Harriet’s cynicism reigns supreme.

For instance, in order to check the box of helping a disadvantaged child before she dies, she says, “We have to find our own hooligan.”

In one of the movie’s best moments, Harriet attends an inner city youth center and delivers sound advice about success while cutting through cultural differences with straight talk. This woman possesses a lifetime of helpful wisdom to pass on to the world, and the story finds ways to deliver this knowledge, including - of all things - an alternative, independent radio station. Harriet’s transformation is an encouraging one, but “The Last Word” begins to flounder during these discoveries of humanity and compassion, due to the film’s construction.

Rather than Harriet’s journey feeling organic, it seems quite the opposite, forced from the filmmakers’ heads. In one clumsy moment, Harriet intrudes on Anne – during her date at a local bar - and questions her life’s esthetic. In an obvious plot device to build tension and further Anne’s push into greater self-reflection, it – instead – snaps us out of our cinematic experience.

After that unnecessary scene, almost all of the remaining events placed in front of Harriet feel manufactured and artificial, including a night swim at a lake, some dancing at her home and an eye rolling attempt to gain some revenge on her previous employer. Unfortunately, the word “artificial” is not a desired descriptor when trying to build a film around a person working through self-discovery.

This picture is not without many enjoyable moments though, and it is a pure pleasure watching MacLaine work on the big screen. She carries cinematic royalty that strikes true chords of greatness, and in addition to the previously mentioned scene with the underprivileged kids, her few onscreen minutes with Philip Baker Hall are nothing short of wonderful. For MacLaine fans, “The Last Word” is a must-see matinee, but my last words are: I wish the film cut its runtime by 20 minutes and stuck to a more organic approach.

(2/4 stars)

Image credits: Bleecker Street

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