Sundance Film Festival
PARK CITY — The reason there are so few successful screwball comedies anymore is that it’s nearly impossible to create the right balance of goofiness and reality. Writer-director Geoffrey Haley’s “The Last Word” is no exception.
The story of a sullen writer (Wes Bentley) who composes poetic epitaphs for people planning suicides and his ditzy girlfriend (Winona Ryder), the film pushes the eccentric without creating believable characters. Ryder’s surprising flair for comedy and a few laughs along the way could give ThinkFilm some modest boxoffice returns, but “Word” is more likely to find its place as a cult item on home video.
As creepy movie professions go, Evan Merck’s (Bentley) job as a poet for desperate souls looking for an exit poem before they check out is right up there. Evan clearly is a gifted writer but apparently has been bruised by life and prefers dealing with other people’s suffering to his own. Other than a childhood in foster homes, Haley offers few details or backstory.
While Evan is paying his respects at the funeral of one of his clients, he meets the departed’s sister, Charlotte (Ryder). When she contacts him, it’s less complicated for him to say that he knew her brother from college than to try and explain what he really does.
But Charlotte is insistent and starts calling and showing up at his apartment, taking him to dinner and dancing. When Evan tells her he isn’t funny, he really isn’t kidding. Stiff as a board and pasty-faced, Bentley’s Evan is a study in comatose; he’s as emotionally dead as some of his clients.
The paring of these two unlikely partners is the kind of match that could only happen in movies. Evan is not vaguely appealing, and what Charlotte sees in him is the film’s big mystery. For her part, Charlotte is a handful, but Ryder at least makes her sexy and likable — in a manic way.
While Evan is spending much of his energy covering his tracks and creating lies so Charlotte doesn’t discover how he really knew her brother, he is neglecting his other clients. Ray Romano, in a wry dramatic role, plays Abel, a serious music composer whose career hasn’t gone well and has reduced him to recording jingles for phone messages. Abel is almost as morose as Evan, and the two form a kind of bond of futility. It’s mildly amusing to see someone as ill-equipped as Abel giving Evan advice about love.
Unfortunately, the pieces don’t really add up, and even the surprise ending with Evan enabling Abel’s fondest wish isn’t particularly satisfying. Haley and his team give the film a professional sheen, but less quirky and more reality would have made for a better picture.
THE LAST WORD
ThinkFilm, Deviant Films
Director-screenwriter: Geoffrey Haley
Producers: Bonnie Timmermann, Alexandra Milchan, David Bergstein, David Hillary, Timothy Wayne Peternel, Jack Utsick
Executive producers: Lawrence Davis, Jeff Rice, Gary Walters, Diego Matamoros
Director of photography: Kees Van Oostrum
Production designer: Erin Smith
Music: John Swihart
Costume designer: Bonnie Stauch
Editor: Fabienne Rawley
Evan Merck: Wes Bentley
Charlotte Morris: Winona Ryder
Abel: Ray Romano
Francis: Alan Rich
Hilde Morris: Gina Hecht
Running time — 94 minutes
No MPAA rating