Retired businesswoman Harriet (Shirley MacLaine) has spent her entire life controlling every aspect of every moment. Nearing the end of her life, another moment she plans on controlling, she decides that she wants to approve her own obituary. She heads to the local paper to meet Anne (Amanda Seyfried), the obituary writer, to task her with writing a memorable piece that can show Harriet in a positive and powerful light. The problem is that Harriet doesn’t exactly have any admirers. Faced with the fact that nobody will really care when she’s gone, Harriet finds the four things that each good obituary has, and sets out to make her mark on the world, dragging Anne along in the process.
There are plenty of things to respect and enjoy about The Last Word. Harriet is a woman who constantly battled back against the hurdles women must face in their lives. The results are expected, with every man trying their best to keep her down, and leaving Harriet labelled as bitchy by everybody she comes in contact with. She always gets what she wants, and stops at nothing to accomplish something once she’s set her mind to it. If that’s bitchy, we should all be happy to accept the label.
MacLaine is the perfect woman to fill this role, giving a character that frequently grates our nerves a level of sympathy that many would find hard to portray. At first, you’ll really dislike Harriet, but you’ll come to understand why she is the way she is, what she’s faced in life, and why our first impressions should be altered. Seyfried stands her ground as Anne, slowly building a character who may not face all the same problems as Harriet, but who must realize that she’ll have to face life in much the same way. Neither woman is ruled by romance, although a slightly misguided subplot with Anne takes a bit away from her strong character, and neither woman will let anything stop them in pursuit of their goals.
The Last Word can’t avoid every problem though, and a huge misstep comes with the introduction of Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), a young, black, ‘at risk’ girl who Harriet decides to mentor because helping a minority will look good in her obituary. This is a problem that is hard to overlook. The character of Brenda, although played nicely by Dixon, isn’t really much of a character at all. She’s more of a prop to help propel certain moments in the film that just wouldn’t work without a child at the centre of them. We learn nothing of her life at all beyond the fact that her father left her family. We don’t meet her mother, we don’t see how her life is at home, and the only reason the character exists is so Harriet has someone to impart tiny pieces of advice to, or to set up scenes where it just wouldn’t work with only Harriet and Anne. It would be odd for two older women to jump into a pond late at night, but it becomes a touching moment when you include a young child in the mix. This is not the way to include Brenda, but that’s what the film gives us. It’s unnecessary and kind of insulting, not to mention her inclusion is based on a scene of racism and not kindness or compassion. I can understand the point of it all, but it’s handled horribly and puts a serious cloud over what is generally a great film.
If you can overlook this, which will be challenging for many viewers, there is a lot to love here. Stories of older women like Harriet are rarely as full and entertaining, and watching Anne find herself in the world around her, without having to rely on a man to justify her existence, is another moment that can be hard to find in film now. How The Last Word wound up ruining what could have been another great story with Brenda is mind boggling, and it’s probably enough to take away everything good the film does for many viewers in the audience.