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Review: The Last Word

March 10, 2017

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

Some films really feel like they are trying too hard to please, and The Last Word is guilty of this.  This is the sort of cliche-riddled Sundance dramedy that follows its formula to a tee, trying to tackle potentially poignant subject matter through a sunny disposition.

The film feels so calculated in its attempts to be sweet and funny and inspiring and emotional, that it’s hard to really buy into or enjoy any of it.  Even the considerable charms of its two seasoned leading ladies, Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried, can’t overcome the cloying tone of it all.

Harriet (Shirley MacLaine) is an elderly former businesswomen who insists on being obsessively in control over every aspect of her life.  So fearing that her time is coming to an end, and prompted by worries over how or if she will be remembered, she bribes the local paper and hires aspiring writer Anne (Amanda Seyfried) to help pen her obituary under her watchful eye.

Harriet concludes that there are a few key factors behind a good obituary, including quotes from friends and family, the example of a life she touched through good deeds, and a “wild card.”  But a lot of people don’t really like her, and she hasn’t spoken to her daughter (Anne Heche) in years, so Harriet has a lot of catching up to do so Anne will have enough material.  The two end up forming one of those “unexpected friendships” that only really exist in movies, with the two initially butting heads, before Anne starts to realize that Harriet actually has much wisdom to impart beneath her crusty exterior.

It’s all very predictable, but worse than that, the actual circumstances of the plot feel sort of sloppy.  For the “wild card” slot on her obituary, Harriet decides to become a DJ at a local indie radio station, after Anne discovers her stash of carefully curated old records hoarded away in a cupboard, creating a subplot that comes out of nowhere.  And suddenly we have the romantic entanglements between Anne and her favourite radio host (Thomas Sadoski) to keep up with.

For her good deed, Harriet decides to go to an underprivileged school and take a young black girl named Brenda (Ann’Jewel Lee) under her wing, in an ill-guided plot point that The Last Word unfortunately plays completely unironically.  The relationship that forms between Harriet and Brenda is supposed to be sweet in a sort of surrogate grandmother-granddaughter way, and I’m sure the filmmakers had good intentions, but the specifics of it end up feeling kind of racist and offensive.  Let’s face it, a rich old white lady imparting unlikely wisdom upon a poor black girl who she thinks could use some manners, can’t help but feel like a tired and outdated stereotype.

Although Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried often can’t help but light up the screen, this only speaks to how good they are as performers, and the film around them falls almost completely flat, despite their genuine likability.  The whole thing, from the narrative beats, to the often overly obvious dialogue and trying to be hip song choices, gives off a sickly sweet vibe that is almost cringe-inducingly twee.  I’m all for a sappy feel good movie if done right, but The Last Word is contrived to the point of feeling cynical, and is so saccharine that it ends up coming across as completely disingenuous and almost crass in its false attempts to be uplifting.

The Last Word is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

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