The Last Word: Maclaine shines in dramedy

Sometimes you have to look a little harder for quality cinema, especially during months where blockbusters worth the price of admission are few and far between. Often, smaller independent or art-house films provide a bridge in these leaner times.

Director Mark Pellington’s “The Last Word” with Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried is a perfect example of a film audiences may have to go out of their way to find, but will be greatly rewarded for their efforts. The emotional, poignant relationship dramedy will resonate with viewers young and old alike.

MacLaine stars as Harriet, a semi-retired advertising executive with a superiority complex and need to micro-manage every aspect of her life that drives friends, family and co-workers away. Preparing for the final stages of her life, the meticulous Brenda forces her way into a young writer’s life and insists on crafting the perfect obituary to encapsulate the life Brenda believes she’s led.

Oscar winner MacLaine commands the screen with a stern, foreboding presence that never truly softens, but changes gradually and subtly over the course of the film as the people around Brenda have a growing impact in her life. Nothing about her performance is particularly endearing, but it was never meant to be and the rigidness of Brenda’s personality seems to crack with small pockets of sunshine. MacLaine is wonderful at displaying Brenda’s wonder at the changes in herself while doing everything in her power to keep it all internal. Looking back at the end of 2017, this may very well be one of the year’s most underrated performances.

Seyfried holds her own opposite the headstrong, brash turn MacLaine gives with a solid, unspectacular performance as obituary writer and occasional essayist Anne, though it’s clear from the outset that her limited role serves mostly to accentuate MacLaine’s scene-chewing. While Seyfried is good in the role, it’s hard to take your eyes off MacLaine.

The same can be said of young AnnJewel Lee Dixon who plays Brenda, a young orphan Harriet takes under her wing through a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. Dixon gives it her all mimicking and giving MacLaine the same brash attitude Harriet exudes, but the chemistry between the duo just doesn’t resonate as much as Pellington probably would like it to. Ironically, there’s actually a much stronger connection between Seyfried and Dixon in limited moments than either actress with MacLaine.

The weakest link in “The Last Word” is Pellington’s lazy, pedantic direction that keeps the film from really flowing from start to finish. The final product is able to overcome a lack of cohesiveness early and audiences willing to stick with the film and its unlikely premise will find themselves charmed by MacLaine in spite of Pellington.

“The Last Word” features a terrific screenplay from Stuart Ross Fink that challenges audiences to reflect on their own concepts of identity, mortality and legacy through a perfect blend of humor and drama that may bring some viewers to tears by the film’s end.

Music plays a large role in the film as Harriet and Anne bond over a mutual love for vinyl records and Harriet takes a job as a local radio disc jockey. As such, “The Last Word” also boasts an impressive and layered soundtrack with songs from Al Lerner, Arbuckle, The Kinks and more providing much needed context and accompaniment to the movie.

It might take a little bit of extra effort to find “The Last Word” on the big screen, but the cinematic experience and Maclaine’s wonderful performance is well worth the journey. Thanks to its stars and a deftly written script, it’s an utterly charming film that will leave viewers inspired to make every moment in their lives matter.

Seek the movie out in theaters or wait until its home video release, but make sure you give this touching indie film a chance.

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