“The Last Word” is written in such a way that it is almost certain first-time screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink knew a version of Shirley MacLaine’s (“Bernie”) Harriet Lauler in real life. Only that would explain his script’s blind lionization of a deeply flawed character and implicit accusations that anyone who sides against her “just doesn’t get it.” In his haste to paint a picture of this seemingly perfect woman, he forgot to make good on a premise with some charm and instead focused his energy on characters that never once rise above boring and drama that somehow continuously outdoes its own one-notedness. Its talented performers are completely stranded in some of the most predictable, trite baloney to hit the silver screen this year.
The story involves Harriet Lauler, an elderly woman who wants a say in how her obituary is written and hires the local obit writer (Amanda Seyfried, “Pan”) to ensure a suitable job is done before her death. There’s some promise to this story, particularly in its originality and potential for dark comedy, and initially it appears it will make good on that promise. An early montage of people, including a spiteful priest, saying nothing but negative things about Lauler is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, and MacLaine play Lauler with the wit and nuance her character needs.
MacLaine is hands-down the best part of the movie, but she can only hold a script like this afloat by strength of will alone for so long, especially when her character is the flick’s biggest problem. Lauler is portrayed as an overly controlling force of nature who makes life miserable for everyone around her. You would think that this character arc writes itself. You would be wrong. Instead, Fink decides that it isn’t Lauler that is the problem; it’s everyone else. She’s only controlling because she’s perfect and knows better than everyone else how they should live their lives. Everyone who complains? They just don’t understand that she’s “trying to help them reach their full potential.” She’s like the end-all-be-all, the perfect human specimen, a god with a drinking problem.
And none of this makes for good drama. When the main character of a film is so overwhelmingly flawless and only nominally human, it becomes impossible to relate to anything that’s going on. The brunt of the burden falls on the supporting cast, which crumbles as well. Seyfried co-headlines as the obituary writer Lauler hires, and the actress quickly finds herself in a role that forces her to be completely passive, lest she accidentally share or even — Heaven forbid — steal Lauler’s spotlight. She is relegated to be yet another one of the older woman’s pet projects and friend, despite an entirely one-sided dynamic. AnnJewel Lee Dixon, in her onscreen debut, rounds out the main trio in a role that forces her to take on a bevy of problematic stereotypes. With that in mind, the weakness of the resulting performance is more forgivable.
If Lucille Bluth from “Arrested Development” was given a feature film, and the writers not only ignored that she’s a fundamentally domineering, narcissistic alcoholic of a character, but actively glorified those qualities while stripping her of most of the wit that made her funny, it would look something like “The Last Word.” No drama can arise from such monotonous characters, yet the audience is continually asked to root for them even when anyone who has seen any movie in the last 100 years can guess exactly where this one is going from the first 10 minutes. Without anything to relate to, “The Last Word” may not be a bad movie, but it is a dreadfully boring one that lacks the humanity for which it strives.