Friday, March 17, 2017

The Last Word: How do we wish to be remembered?

The Last Word (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for blunt profanity

By Derrick Bang

Once the characters are introduced, and the core premise established, most folks will be able to anticipate all the plot beats coming in Stuart Ross Fink’s script.

Doesn’t matter. The execution is charming, from start to finish.

Small-town newspaper reporter Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried, left) is astonished when
take-charge Harriet Lauler (Shirley MacLaine) barges into the publisher's office and
insists on commissioning — and fine-tuning — the obituary that'll run after her death.
Actors lucky enough to achieve milestone birthdays often are rewarded with the opportunity to play eccentric and/or cantankerous oldsters who leave a trail of shell-shocked victims in their wake: a stereotype that rarely fails to entertain. Indeed, such character portraits often result in nominations and awards. (Just for starters: Maggie Smith, The Lady in the Van; Rolf Lassgård, A Man Called Ove; Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, Grumpy Old Men; Art Carney, Harry and Tonto.)

Which brings us to tart-tongued, obsessive/compulsive Harriet Lauler: a once successful advertising executive whose world has contracted to the confines of her spacious, beautifully appointed — but empty — house, and who now marks the passage of each grindingly slow day with boredom and frustration. And who is played, with waspish delight, by Shirley MacLaine.

The Last Word — terrific title, by the way — finds Harriet adrift in a lonesome existence of her own making: completely isolated from the family members, former friends and colleagues that she has annoyed, offended, insulted or merely exasperated. Whether this seclusion is deserved, is beside the point; our heartbreaking introduction to Harriet finds her at low ebb, MacLaine wordlessly conveying the woman’s hushed despair during a somber montage accompanied solely by soft notes from Nathan Matthew David’s score.

This is by no means the first film to preface its narrative by mining gentle chuckles from a character’s ill-conceived suicide attempt. Goldie Hawn won an Oscar for doing so, back in 1969’s Cactus Flower; poor Lassgård’s similar efforts kept getting frustrated, in the aforementioned A Man Called Ove. The worst part for Harriet, after hospital treatment, is that she’s embarrassed to have revealed a weakness in her unswerving refinement.

But the act also prompts an epiphany, when she happens to glance at a random obituary in the local newspaper. Suddenly concerned about how she’ll be remembered in a few similarly short paragraphs, after her passing, Harriet impulsively decides to control the situation. She therefore hires the young journalist in question — Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried) — to write her obituary. Now, while she’s still alive.

Understandably astonished by such brass audacity, under ordinary circumstances Anne likely would rebuff such a request (demand). But this is the 21st century: Newspapers are failing daily, and — as Anne is reminded by publisher/editor Ronald (Tom Everett Scott, in a brief but memorable part) — Harriet Lauler is a wealthy woman in a position to greatly help her financially stressed local paper. And, so, Anne reluctantly succumbs to Harriet’s assignment.

The first round doesn’t go well.

Harriet’s blithe assumption that Anne will get plenty of material from the lengthy list of interview subjects proves a serious miscalculation, when nobody — not her estranged daughter (Anne Heche) or ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall), not her former business associates, not even her priest — has anything good to say about her. Even given her own brief experience with Harriet, Anne is impressed by the depth of vitriol that everybody displays for this tightly wound control freak.

Nor can Anne concoct brilliant prose out of nonexistent material. Even Harriet can’t argue that point (although she certainly tries).

That leaves only one option: Harriet embarks on a campaign to refurbish her image — in a few weeks — by building an entirely new legacy, based on a four-point “bucket list” of accomplishments and character traits that she has decided, via research, are common to the best and most satisfying obituaries.

It’s a droll premise, at first blush, and that’s the beauty of Fink’s script. Although we initially smile at Harriet’s “foolish” effrontery, and wince at her relentlessly dismissive manner, by the second act we identify with this focus on mortality, family, legacy and identity. We all worry about such things.

And, thanks to the delicacy of MacLaine’s performance, we come to sympathize with Harriet. Eventually. Mostly. (Even at her gentlest, Harriet’s blunt declarations can be breathtaking.)

The point, of course, is that people such as Harriet inspire greatness — if only as a result of I’ll-show-her indignation — because they demand it. Our most fondly remembered school teachers aren’t the ones who coddled us, and praised even insignificant effort; we most respect the people who hammered us, terrorized us, and inspired us to become our best selves. It’s an illuminating moral that cannot be repeated often enough, and this film’s cast ensures smooth and entertaining delivery here.

MacLaine is delightful, her performance a savvy blend of rudeness, shrewd perception, intelligence, slashing humor and — yes, it’s true — empathy and vulnerability. There’s no doubt that Harriet is the smartest person in the room: She knows it, and she demands that everybody else acknowledge it; what’s wrong with that?

Director Mark Pellington regards Harriet as a much older version of Aurora Greenway, the equally controlling character that brought MacLaine an Oscar in Terms of Endearment. It’s an astute observation, and MacLaine may have shaded Harriet in that direction.

Seyfried’s performance is equally layered. Despite Anne’s spunky exterior, she’s quite insecure: a would-be “great writer” stuck in a dead-end job about which she cares little, who pens essays in a journal that she refuses to let anybody else read. She flinches under the constant application of Harriet’s dependably proper grammar, knowing deep down that her older companion often is dead-on correct about all sorts of things.

But at the same time, Anne isn’t without her own insight; she has a journalist’s inquisitive nature, and an understanding that surface qualities can be deceptive. Watching Anne blossom and mature, via Seyfried’s carefully shaded portrayal, is thoroughly satisfying.

The third member of what becomes an inseparable dynamic must’ve been the toughest to conceive, and the most difficult to bring to the screen. Having decided that she must “change a life” — one of the items of the bucket list — Harriet merrily visits a local community center, a dismayed Anne in her wake, with the goal of mentoring a troubled child. Just like that.

Brenda, the foul-mouthed little spitfire in question, is played with irrepressible sparkle by AnnJewel Lee Dixon. She’s hilarious, and damn near steals the film from MacLaine (which, let it be said, is no small accomplishment). Dixon’s role also straddles the razor’s edge between engaging behavior and unpalatable stereotyping: a delicate balance that must have worried Pellington and Fink every time she stepped in front of the camera.

The young actress carries the day, thanks to her precocious blend of feisty self-assurance and no-nonsense circumspection. Brenda is just as blunt as Harriet, which makes them a solid match. And if the little girl “softens” much too rapidly, between the first and second times we see her, well, that’s the nature of feel-good fairy tales; they show us the world as we’d like it to be.

Thomas Sadoski, easily recognized from TV’s The Newsroom and Life in Pieces, is terrific as Robin Sands, manager of a local indie radio station. Sadoski’s first scene with MacLaine is marvelous, Harriet having decided to parlay her love and varied knowledge of music into a late-entry career as a DJ (the “wild card” on the bucket list). The two size each other up with sharp observations about musicians, vinyl, optimal broadcasting equipment and all sorts of other details. It’s quite a moment.

Sadoski also exudes laid-back charm, grounding the story as the one character who is satisfied with his place in the world.

Harriet’s improbable endeavor also allows the film’s already varied soundtrack to expand, with the skillful application of tunes by The Regrettes, Diane Coffee, Witch, Lady Lamb, Salty Dog and “the best rock band of all time,” The Kinks. Music supervisor Liza Richardson deserves plaudits for such an inventive roster, and Pellington for using everything so well.

The resulting concoction goes down smoothly, if entirely predictably. The Last Word is a sweet little film: the sort of gentle dramedy that invites repeat viewing, and winds up being shared as a valued part of home video libraries.

On top of which, any film that celebrates newspapers, and good writing, deserves to be cherished.

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