The Last Word
This isn’t to be confused with the 2009 Winona Ryder/Ray Romano movie of the same name; and it was 15 years before that when I last remember Shirley MacLaine playing such an unlikable character, in Guarding Tess. She’s a former First Lady and Nicholas Cage is the Secret Service agent assigned to protect her. That was at a time when watching MacLaine play a pill was still fun, and Cage still had an acting career. Yet surprisingly, it was Amanda Seyfried that was the most annoying character in this film.
Harriet (MacLaine) spills wine (Eric Burden ref. not intended) one night and as she’s cleaning up, happens upon the obituaries. Who among us hasn’t wondered what our obituary would say, or who would show up at our funeral? Well, since she realizes everyone hates her, including her daughter Elizabeth (Anne Heche), she comes up with a plan. She’ll have Ann (Seyfried), the obituary writer for the paper she used to advertise with, write her obituary while she’s alive. That way she can couch the direction it goes. Of course, audiences will be able to tell the predictable nature the story will go, but hey…it’s a six time Oscar nominee (and one time winner), so it’s a surprisingly fun two hour ride.
My wife was shocked I liked this movie more than she did. She thought the aspects of a woman running her own business, at a time when it was a man’s world, could’ve been explored in more interesting ways. She also felt that the one employee that does show up and sing her praises, wasn’t explained properly (she does have a point about a scene where everyone at that company applauds after something Harriet does).
When Ann sets out to write the obituary (“You put the ‘bitch’ in obituary,” she states), she quickly finds nobody likes Harriet. It’s the usual, played-out montage you’ve seen in so many movies, although you do crack up when even the priest (played by John Billingsley) says vile things about her.
It was a pleasant surprise to see a character actor I love (Philip Baker Hall). He plays an ex-husband who, in what are well-written scenes, doesn’t despise her the way we were expecting. He sheds a bit of light on how Harriet operates.
In one really fun segment, Harriet decides she should do something philanthropic. She goes to a school that deals with troubled kids, and likes how the spunky young Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon) mouths off to her teacher. She mentors her, and their relationship is adorable. Another sign there was some decent writing (screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink) is the fact that they didn’t rely on a bunch of lame jokes relating to the girl being black and Harriet being old. At one point, the girl snaps something along the lines of, “What did you do that has you coming here for community service? Drunk driving?” And how can you not crack up when she’s dropping an F-bomb in regard to the Dewey Decimal System.
One section of the movie I should’ve loved, was when Harriet decided to start working at an indie radio station. She gets a position on the air by showing off her record collection, and professing her love of The Kinks (how can you not like her at that point?). It’s just a shame that, aside from one of the best Kinks songs (Waterloo Sunset), they play a bunch of indie songs I’ve never heard of. Perhaps they couldn’t get the rights for some of the more interesting bands.
It would’ve also been better if the other DJ actually had more on-air appeal. He sounded rather bland (which worked when Steven Wright was the DJ in Reservoir Dogs, but not as much here).
I’m such a music and radio snob, these scenes bugged me. For example, the entire staff applauded her after playing Eddie Cochran (we don’t hear it). Nobody would do that, especially a bunch of hipsters that would prefer Death Cab for Cutie over Cochran.
The movie could’ve been edgier, less predictable, and been a bit more interesting when it became a road trip picture.
There were enough one liners that worked. Harriet saying things like “Most people are idiots, but don’t realize they’re idiots.” After that line, and talk about her love of Van Morrison — I thought she was the coolest 80-year-old ever.
There was also the best dirty car complaint scene since Joseph Gordon-Levitt complained to Anna Kendrick in 50/50.
This gets 2 ½ stars out of 5, and it’s playing at the Angelika Film Center starting this weekend.