The Last Word movie review: wealthy white privilege, unchecked

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

The Last Word red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Cantankerous old grump teaches directionless young people about life… in a way that is totally obnoxious and not in the least bit convincing.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women
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.

We’re meant to be charmed by Harriet’s awful busybody ways. We are not.

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.tweet

Shirley MacLaine storms her way into an indie-radio DJ job: that’s the sort of whim she can act on.
Shirley MacLaine storms her way into an indie-radio DJ job: that’s the sort of whim she can act on.tweet

Harriet is unremittingly cynical and condescending,tweet 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,tweet 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.tweet

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)

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll measure. If you’re not a spammer or a troll, your comment will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately.
notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Fri, Jul 07, 2017 3:12pm

This sounds more like a bad “Lifetime” movie rather than any kind of mainstream Hollywood film.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  rick
Fri, Jul 07, 2017 4:44pm

I wouldn’t call it Hollywood mainstream: it’s from an indie distributor. And it had only a limited release in the US, and its UK release today is small too.

But yes, it’s a Lifetime movie. :-)

Aaron Jones
Aaron Jones
Fri, Jul 07, 2017 11:55pm

Thank you, MaryAnn. I really disliked this movie for all the reasons in your review and a few more. Another thing, for all the talk about The Kinks apparently the movie could afford only one song, though well-chosen and placed within the movie.

Sat, Jul 08, 2017 6:09am

“The movie uses Brenda in the exactly the same way as Harriet does.”

I wanted to see this movie when it was out but feared exactly what you’ve accused it of and never got around to it. I’m still sad that I never got to experience a version of it that worked.