Review: The Last Word
- First, a confession. I saw The Last Word before a Q&A with director Mark Pellington and Shirley MacLaine. If MacLaine had stayed a few minutes after the talk to interact with her fans, just a little, I might not be writing this review. That’s the way the world works. But she didn’t. “If I sign for them, I’ll have to sign for a lot.” This, despite her telling a woman she was with, “This was a good crowd.”
- Second, another confession: I hate reviews.
- So… Let’s begin with the story. In general, it’s a very familiar story. We’ve seen it a zillion times. It’s a cliche. Recently, a film telling this type of story was nominated for an Oscar: A Man Called Ove. A curmudgeon that no one likes turns their life around. In fact, both The Last Word and Ove begin with their main character’s attempted suicide.
- For the most part, because we’ve seen this story a zillion times, it’s a predictable film. We know that the Scrooge-like character is going to turn out to be lovable. We know that she will die. We know that the obit will be read. There are a few surprises along the way. (Even fewer than there would be if you see the trailer first. I try to avoid trailers, but it’s hard. The theater showed it at an even we attended a week earlier, and the guy behind us played it on his phone before last night’s screening.) But there is one scene that stands out as something unexpected: MacLaine’s reaction after seeing her estranged daughter for the first time in many, many years. If there’s one good scene in the film, it’s this one.
- My guess is the film’s writer is under the influence of Neil Simon. Too much under the influence. Either that or too many screenplay guides. Dialogue consists of would be zingers. Even the kid speaks as if she’s in a well rehearsed play. In other words, it doesn’t have the feel of life, of authenticity, but of play acting without much fun.
- Two scenes stand out as especially poor. The first, in which MacLaine’s character attempts to kill herself takes forever to get to the point. She stares out windows, stares and stares and stares. If you want to know how to do this, watch A Man Called Ove. It gets to the point and does it will skill and humor. Before The Last Word had really begun, for me, it was pretty much over. But I stuck it out and endured it through MacLaine’s last scene, which was also less than good. We know she’s going to die because her heart is overworked. So, when we see her dancing and dancing and dancing, we expect that she will croak at any moment. She does croak, eventually, but first she sits, then she climbs the stares, gets a picture, comes back down the stairs, sits back down, then dies. It seems as if the filmmakers were dead set on MacLaine dying with that picture in her hand but couldn’t figure out how to get it in her hand without having her make an epic voyage to get it. Even MacLaine said she didn’t know what happened in this scene. “Did she kill herself? Did she die or just fall asleep?” Those were MacLaine’s questions for Mark Pellington, the director, who was sitting right next to her. Valid questions because the scene is poorly written, poorly staged, poorly edited, poorly thought out. In a word: bad. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be instructive.
- Kubrick said he was inspired more by bad movies than good ones, and others have said they learned more from bad movies than good ones. The Last Word, as a whole, is more mediocre than bad, but it can be instructive just the same. For example, MacLaine’s character is also a bit like Huppert’s in Elle. Compare the two films. You cannot help but admire Elle (and Huppert) all the more. Even MacLaine, last time we saw her, said she admired Huppert’s “audacity.”
- My last word on The Last Word: how much sense does it make for someone who doesn’t care what people think of her, to suddenly start caring what people think of her? I’m referring to the start of the movie, not the end. In other words, the movie’s premise is hooey.