By Leslie C. Halpern
If you had the money and power to hire your own newspaper obituary writer while you were still living, would you do it? For wealthy control freak, Harriet Lauler (Shirley MacLaine), there’s no hesitation in making the decision. Only Harriet gets the last word on how she will be posthumously remembered in print.
The former successful advertising executive has always been concerned about public image. That was her specialty, after all, until she was fired from her own advertising agency for a disastrous temper tantrum in front of clients. Universally despised – though respected for her intelligence and professional achievements – Harriet has no friends or loved ones in her old age.
Rewriting Her Life Story
Realizing she may end up with a generic obituary, she bulldozes her way into the local newspaper office where she still has enough clout to get the editor to bow to her will. Harriet coerces him into assigning young obituary writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried) to the case – against Anne’s wishes, of course.
Harriet’s research reveals that a memorable obituary needs to cover specific areas of one’s life, so she’s determined to re-write her life story at this late stage. Specifically, she wants to mend fences with her estranged daughter (Anne Heche) and ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall), re-gain the respect of her co-workers, perform charity work with an at-risk minority, and be remembered for a “wild card,” that is, some random act that helps identify her quirkiness.
Overly Familiar Stereotypes
What begins as the stereotypical wide-eyed youth forced into a close relationship with a grouchy old person turns into another stereotype: the interaction between young and old causes the heart-of-gold beneath Harriet’s rough exterior to emerge, and in turn change Anne’s life for the better. Woven into the script are a romance between Anne and an independent radio station manager (Thomas Sadoski), (enabled by Harriet, naturally), and a sassy young black girl (AnnJewel Lee Dixon) whom Harriet mentors.
Though much of the storyline and characters feel overly familiar, MacLaine stamps the movie with her own unique mark. She rises above the material to find the humanity in her larger-than-life character. The others are not quite as successful: The idealistic young writer stuck cranking out obituaries, the foul-mouthed at-risk minority youth who changes almost instantaneously into a good kid, and the handsome single radio station manager just waiting for the love of his life to walk through the door are shallow stereotypes without depth or weight. The script by Stuart Ross Fink provides a few laughs, but most viewers likely will not remember anything about this movie beyond MacLaine’s powerful performance.
The Last Word
- A wealthy elderly woman hires a newspaper obituary writer to memorialize her while she’s still alive.
- Stars: Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, AnnJewel Lee Dixon, Thomas Sadoski, Philip Baker Hall, Tom Everett Scott, Joel Murray, Anne Heche
- Director: Mark Pellington
- Genre: Comedy/Drama
- Run Time: 108 minutes
- MPAA Rating: R (for language)
Other Films with Shirley MacLaine