The Last Word


            Harriet (Shirley MacLaine) is a retired successful businesswoman who lives a life of splendid isolation, in her big house all by herself.  She's so bored, and such a perfectionist, that she takes the hedge clippers away from the gardener (because he's not doing it right) and the spatula away from the cook/housekeeper (because she's not doing it right, either).  If she has any friends, they're not in evidence.  No family, either.  Not even a pet.  Just her rattling around by herself in her big suburban McMansion, and one night she takes some pills with her wine out of sheer boredom.

            The breakthrough moment comes after that, though, when she's back at her dining room table, alone, again contemplating the pills, when she spills her wine, uses a newspaper to sop up the mess, and in so doing notices an obituary that she thinks is poorly written.  Because it's not true, about that person, whom she knew.  So the next morning she marches into the newspaper (where she apparently once had a financial interest) and demands to see the obit writer, Anne (Amanda Seyfried).  Harriet challenges Anne's truthfulness and her writing style, but Anne's boss tells her she has to put up with it.  Harriet then challenges Anne to go ahead and write Harriet's obituary, and proceeds to supply her with names of people to consult.

            Anne reluctantly agrees, but discovers that nobody likes Harriet.  Not any past colleagues, not her ex-husband, not even her priest (who can't think of a single good thing to say, either....apparently he was absent that day in seminary when they taught tact as personal ethics).  We know what's going to happen here:  Anne and Harriet become friends, despite themselves.  Anne's Mother had abandoned the family as a child, so the substitution there is obvious, and Harriet is estranged from her adult daughter, so equally obvious emotional replacement.  But that doesn't keep them from speaking the sort of harsh truthfulness that won't be mistaken for diplomacy.

            Part of Anne and Harriet's relationship is to challenge each other out of their comfortable personal bubbles.  Anne, besides walking around with headphones all the time, doesn't seem to have any ambition beyond the local newspaper, even though she studiously keeps a diary of essays.  Harriet is challenged to “take on” an at-risk child, and she finds just the one she wants, Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), who has a potty mouth for a nine-year-old, but isn't afraid to speak her mind. 

            Harriet finds some fulfillment in an unexpected place:  as an old-school disc jockey on one of those “independent” radio stations that pride themselves on classic vinyl.  Anne finds romance in an equally unexpected place.  And even in the unlikely road trip where Brenda, Harriet, and Anne wind up bunking in the same motel bed, the moment comes when they spontaneously swim in a hot spring by moonlight, and suddenly life just seems to be one big adventure.

            Does it tell you anything that the screening this reviewer attended was sponsored by the AARP?  Yes, we “of a certain age” will revel in Shirley MacLaine playing the incorrigible, rascally old coot, and she's well-cast for the role.  But will younger audiences find her eleventh-hour “transformation” all that interesting?


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  When have you taken a risk that you regret because it cost you dearly?

2)                  When have you taken a risk that resulted in a rousing success?

3)                  When have you taken a risk that failed, but you still feel it was a good learning experience?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association