Beginning as a humble study of an elderly woman who wants her obituary written while she’s still alive, The Last Word soon trots out every feel-good trick in the book to ensure that the perpetually misunderstood, OCD-ridden Harriet (Shirley MacLaine) shows everyone the ostensibly shining light beneath her blunt, irascible exterior. The film attempts to position its protagonist’s cantankerousness as a direct result of her determination and successes as a businesswoman, but Harriet’s transformation isn’t significant enough to justify her complete redemption in the eyes of those around her.
The controlling and condescending Harriet’s quest begins when she hires and quickly gets under the skin of an obituary writer, Anne (Amanda Seyfried), who works for the newspaper in which Harriet’s former company used to advertise. After Anne returns from a series of interviews with nothing but negative anecdotes about her subject, Harriet drags the writer around town to prove that she’ll leave behind a strong legacy. From there, Mark Pellington’s film proceeds as an avalanche of quirk, from Harriet treating a precocious, at-risk black girl as if she were a personal accessory to straining to display her trendy bona fides by working as a DJ at the local indie radio station—a job that she’s only able to get because she has the financial security to work for free.
Throughout, Harriet’s arrogance and sense of privilege are less distasteful than the allowances The Last Word makes for the woman’s behavior. In short, her domineering ill-treatment of Anne is seen as permissible because it breaks the young writer out of her shell. But more confounding is Harriet’s attempted reconciliation with her daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Heche). After a decade of not speaking to each other, they meet for a lunch that ends with Harriet uncontrollably laughing her way through her realization that she must have been a good mother because Elizabeth is now a neurosurgeon. The comic tenor of the sequence is inexplicable for how it has audiences side not with the tormented Elizabeth, but with the obliviously cruel Harriet.
Such tone-deaf interactions and bizarre characterizations plague The Last Word. Harriet is a strong, opinionated, and successful woman, but she’s also a martyr, underappreciated by her workers and misunderstood by her family. Because she doesn’t do much growing by the end of the film, it’s nothing short of befuddling that almost everyone seems to magically come around to finding her wise and charming. The film doesn’t exactly make credible anyone’s reasons for making such a 180, but at least it’s true to its title by having an abusive control freak always have the last word.