Shirley MacLaine deserves a better victory lap than ‘The Last Word’

Fittingly for a movie that’s all about how one’s life will be remembered, “The Last Word” will make you reflect on your own stint on this planet. The decisions you’ve made. The time that could’ve been better spent doing something else — like the 108 minutes it takes to watch “The Last Word.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A grumpy senior citizen, disliked by everyone with whom she comes into contact, finally opens up, lets someone into her life and is revealed to have been misunderstood all these many years.

If you haven’t, by all means go see “The Last Word.” It’s a rare opportunity to watch Shirley MacLaine on the big screen. But if you have, just spend 10 minutes browsing Netflix and you should be able to find at least a half dozen similar, better movies. Heck, the genre should be its own category.

When we first meet Harriet Lauler (MacLaine), she’s fussing around her house, taking the shears from her gardener to trim the hedges her way — she also mows the lawn rather than let him do it — and brushing aside the cook to prepare a dinner she won’t eat.

 

During a suicide attempt, she spills a glass of wine. Mopping it up with a copy of the local Bristol Gazette, she notices a glowing obituary written about a beloved local teacher and hatches a plan.

A once-powerful advertising executive who kept the Gazette afloat for years, Harriet marches into the office of the editor (Tom Everett Scott) and demands to meet with the paper’s obituary writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried).

“Am I fired?” Anne asks. “You should be so lucky,” he tells her.

Armed with memorably positive obituaries written about awful people she knew, Harriet wants Anne to write her obituary, over which Harriet naturally will have final say, to ensure she’s remembered properly. Basically, “Help me, obit one, you’re my only hope.”

Harriet provides Anna with an exhaustive, alphabetized list of acquaintances, friends and family members, none of whom can stand her — not even her priest. It turns out, she’s so controlling, Harriet even makes her gynecologist let her examine herself.

So when that fails, Harriet decides to let Anne help “shape a legacy” rather than just transcribe one. This basically entails trying to rein in Harriet, who says whatever’s on her mind, as she looks for a young “hooligan” to mentor and finds one in foul-mouthed 9-year-old Brenda (Ann’Jewel Lee).

Anne and Harriet eventually bond over Harriet’s collection of dusty vinyl albums. Anne turns her on to her favorite independent radio station, just like the one Harriet used to listen to, and before long, Harriet and Brenda, dragging that record collection in a little red wagon, show up at the station, where Harriet lands the morning drive-time shift from the bemused station manager (Thomas Sadoski).

Written by newcomer Stuart Ross Fink and directed by Mark Pellington (“The Mothman Prophecies”), “The Last Word” is unconvincing at every step. The shambling string of scenes rarely feels like anything real people would do. It’s more like a would-be quirky victory lap for MacLaine that grows more predictable and cloying as it goes.

There’s a road trip — because there has to be one in movies like this — to see Harriet’s estranged daughter (Anne Heche), and “The Last Word” manages to bounce along every road-trip cliche as though they were potholes.

At one point, the three women even engage in a dance party.

And, in a movie dripping with profanity, Harriet actually gives one of her most bitter enemies a raspberry. You know, the tongue-through-the-lips, “pppfftthhhhh” thing.

Here’s hoping MacLaine is even half as obsessed as Harriet regarding how she’ll be remembered and finds a movie worthy of her career to follow “The Last Word.”

If not in this lifetime, perhaps in her next.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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