'The Last Word': Film Review | Sundance 2017

You go, Shirl.

Shirley MacLaine plays an octogenarian control freak who enlists Amanda Seyfried's obit writer to reshape how she will be remembered in Mark Pellington's comedy with tears.

Pretty much the minute the three generations of feisty females bond in The Last Word, you know that sooner or later they're going to take a slow-mo power walk wearing cool sunglasses. But if you must make another entirely predictable comedy about an unapologetic old white curmudgeon who steamrolls all opposition, you can't do better than draft the redoubtable Shirley MacLaine to keep audiences in her barbed corner while we wait for her inevitable bittersweet humanization.

Casting is everything in director Mark Pellington's latest, with MacLaine in blazingly fine form as she dignifies the movie's every pre-programmed emotional cue while blossoming from dragon lady into nurturing giver of life lessons.

Much like last year's cute but condescending Sally Field vehicle, Hello, My Name Is Doris, this Bleecker Street release could score some indulgent reviews and spark respectable niche box-office numbers for one very good reason — it provides a meaty showcase for a beloved American actress of a certain age to do what she does best. Pellington clearly understands what a rare reward that is, refreshing our affection with a gorgeous opening-titles sequence that threads together photographs of MacLaine's character — but really of the star herself — through the decades. If everyone else in the movie is merely along for the ride, at least they're in stellar company.

First-time screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink's setup is nothing if not schematic, but to be fair, the script does score its share of hearty laughs, particularly in the early going as we first witness MacLaine's formidable Harriet Lauler in action.

An impeccably put-together 81-year-old divorcee, Harriet wears a permanent frown of disapproval. The word "controlling" doesn’t do this vain, snippy woman justice. Dissatisfied with her gardener's efforts, she waves him away and trims the hedges herself. Likewise the housekeeper, who nervously braces for Harriet to step in and take over preparing the evening meal. Her hairdresser also gets ushered aside as Harriet commandeers the scissors and completes the job to her own exacting specifications. A little later, we learn that even her former gynecologist was sidelined so that Harriet could properly complete her examination. The pattern is clear.

But living alone in her spotless, stately home in a fictitious town called Bristol, near Los Angeles, Harriet appears ready to check out. Though when an ER doctor questions whether her taking a handful of Clonazepam with a bottle of red wine was really an accident, she snaps back, "Yes, I was sleepy and I was thirsty."

A chance view of the local paper's obituaries section soon after triggers Harriet's concern about the way in which her death will eventually be reported. She marches into the offices of the Bristol Gazette, reminding the editor (Tom Everett Scott) that she was a substantial donor to his struggling newspaper during her time as head of a successful advertising agency. She demands the services of staff obit writer Anne (Amanda Seyfried) and presents her with a list of 100 names to contact for research purposes.

Having admired Anne's skill at turning people she knew and deemed worthless into seemingly much-loved pillars of the community, Harriet approaches this mission with a tenacious pragmatism that's quite funny. Anne gets some insight into Harriet's strength of character and her proto-feminist fearlessness in a male-dominated business world by talking to Edward (Philip Baker Hall), the ex-husband Harriet describes as "a jackass." But everyone else on the list is scathing. Even a priest confesses he hated her.

Harriet is deterred neither by the evidence of her unpopularity, nor by Anne's eagerness to quit the assignment following a rejected first draft. After studying obits in the nation's top papers, she narrows down the formula to four essential points: The subject must be loved by family; admired by co-workers; have touched someone's life for the better ("preferably a minority or a cripple"); and have a wildcard achievement to add a personal touch. Harriet sets out to reshape her legacy by addressing these points, brooking no resistance from Anne.

That process unfolds in increasingly by-the-numbers steps. An at-risk girl from the projects, Brenda (Ann'Jewel Lee), is procured for mentorship, the 9-year-old's tough-talking pluckiness marking her as the ideal candidate. Harriet embarks on a new career, bullying her way into a morning drive-time radio DJ gig with her impressive music knowledge and vinyl collection, while also spotting a potential boyfriend for Anne in station chief Robin (Thomas Sadoski).

That takes care of points two, three and four, which leaves the family challenge. Harriet's estranged daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Heche), proves an unyielding chip off the old block, though old softie Edward might just be able to summon the residual tender feelings required. Meanwhile, Anne's attitude to her exigent self-appointed boss morphs from annoyance to admiration to, yes, love, while Harriet prods her to stop hiding behind her self-doubt and go chase her dreams, even if she risks failure.

Pellington's approach can best be described as correct, and the glossy movie looks tidy, if undistinguished. There's also Nathan Matthew David's pretty score to underline every mood shift, along with songs, song, songs of every vintage. Though it's hard to complain about over-reliance on music in a movie that pays homage to the undersung greatness of The Kinks and then unleashes "Waterloo Sunset" at a moment of maximum poignancy.

Still, Fink's script continually blurs the line between efficient and shameless, notably in a road trip that seals the three-way pact among Harriet, Anne and Brenda with a moonlight dip, and in the late breaking news of a heart condition, just as Harriet appears ready to re-embrace life.

While Seyfried's role is strictly an accessory to the main event, and Anne's arc of self-actualization even more formulaic, she's appealing as always. Sadoski does what he can with a cookie-cutter sensitive dude; lively newcomer Lee almost gets around the script's cutesiness concerning her character; veteran Hall's sad bloodhound eyes communicate warmth even when Edward is in combative mode; and who doesn't want to see MacLaine and Heche face off in a mother-daughter bitchfest? A little more of that would have been welcome.

But this is MacLaine's show and she devours every minute of it. Though she's required at times here to perform tasks beneath her skill set — like a liberating funky-granny dance break, or an insta-melt from scowl to sappy smile — there's a spiky vitality behind her characterization that won't quit. In fact, it becomes almost plausible that morning radio listeners would eat up the vinegary wisdom of this indomitable octogenarian. Even in a pandering sentimental comedy like this one, it's a pleasure to see MacLaine back in the spotlight.

Distribution: Bleecker Street
Production companies: Myriad Pictures, in association with Wondros, Iro Hoss Films, Parkside Pictures
Cast: Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Anne Heche, Ann’Jewel Lee, Thomas Sadoski, Philip Baker Hall, Gedde Watanabe, Tom Everett Scott, Joel Murray
Director: Mark Pellington
Screenwriter: Stuart Ross Fink
Producers: Kirk D’Amico, Anne-Marie Mackay, Mark Pellington
Executive producers: Andrew Karpen, Teddy Schwartzman, Dan Steinman, Dan Roth, Phillip B. Goldfine, Damiano Tucci, Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Kevin Forester, Aaron Magnani
Director of photography: Eric Koretz
Production designer: Richard Hoover
Costume designer: Alix Hester
Music: Nathan Matthew David
Editor: Julia Wong
Casting: Heidi Levitt
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Sales: Myriad Pictures

Rated R, 108 minutes