I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
It is not impossible to tell a story about a nasty character and make us like him or her. This is not a movie that achieves that. I will credit The Last Word, however, for flipping on its head that old cliché about a cantankerous old grump finally learning the true meaning of Christmas/life/love/whatever from a spunky young person: here, it’s cantankerous old grump Harriet (Shirley MacLaine: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Bernie) who teaches some timid and directionless younger people the true meanings of things… though in a way that is totally obnoxious and not in the least bit convincing.
An exacting, demanding woman, Harriet is used to ordering people around in the rudest way imaginable and getting her way because she’s wealthy, and now she commands that the obit writer at her local newspaper, Anne (Amanda Seyfried: Love the Coopers, Fathers & Daughters), take time away from her legitimate work to prewrite her printed eulogy; her demand is met because the paper is expecting to be remembered generously in her will. At first, as Anne interviews people who know Harriet, we’re meant to find it funny how much everyone despises her (someone needed therapy! a Catholic priest is brought to near tears discussing how much he hates her!). Later, we’re meant to accept that her brutal pessimism is merely the result of having had to be tough in her career in male-dominated advertising, which we do not accept. Finally, we’re meant to be charmed by how her awful interfering busybody ways are like tough medicine that everyone around her simply has to take in order to improve their lives — she gets a boyfriend for Anne! — but we are not charmed.
Harriet is unremittingly cynical and condescending, and so is this movie, with characters who snarkily deconstruct the clichés as they are being deployed and — worst of all — the appalling subplot about the “disadvantaged youth [translation: poor and black]” preteen Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), whom Harriet takes under her dreadful wing because it will make her obituary sound better; the movie uses Brenda in the exactly the same way as Harriet does. And it’s all wrapped up in some phony female-bonding nonsense — road trip! midnight swim! — crafted by two men, director Mark Pellington (Henry Poole Is Here, The Mothman Prophecies) and first-time screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink, who don’t appear to have the vaguest notion of women’s realities.
Seyfried and Dixon are as charming as it is possible to be under the circumstances, and MacLaine’s performance is terrific… which only makes how Harriet’s story is presented to us even worse. All three of these characters deserve much better than this, to have their lives handled with a lot more care and understanding. And the cast deserves better, too.
see also: my review of the similarly themed The Midwife (Sage femme)