PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Although Shirley MacLaine’s off-screen interest in spirituality and reincarnation sometimes obscures her on-screen accomplishments, it doesn’t erase them or her standing as Hollywood royalty.
While appearing in scores of movies as a leading lady and character actress, she won an Oscar (for 1984’s Terms of Endearment) and has been nominated six times (for Some Came Running, The Apartment, Irma La Douce, The Turning Point, and as the writer and director of the documentary, The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir).
Which is why her first starring role in years arrives with a little well-deserved slack.
Not that her performance in The Last Word needs it.
But the script does.
Even though MacLaine elevates the material through presence alone, The Last Word strains credulity far too much of the time for any kind of comfort.
But even as a metaphorical summing up of her career — although she’s certainly not finished, despite this film’s resemblance to a “final outing,” with at least three more projects on her plate — The Last Word is interesting if not completely gratifying to watch.
Octogenarian MacLaine stars as Harriet Lauler, a wealthy retired businesswoman and abrasive control freak who used to run an advertising agency.
Noticing a number of well-written obituaries in the local newspaper, and realizing she’s a lot closer to the end of her life than the beginning, she contacts the young journalist who writes the obits, Anne Sherman, played by Amanda Seyfried, and asks her – through her boss, who knows that this woman could help the struggling paper out financially – to research her life, contact those who know her, reinvent certain aspects, and see if she can spruce up her legacy.
Of course, because micromanager Harriet must always have the last word in virtually every exchange, she doesn’t exactly leave Anne alone while she does her due diligence. Or, as Anne puts it, Harriet “puts the bitch in obituary.”
And to no one’s surprise, most of what Anne gets from those whom she tracks down to comment on their perceptions of Harriet for the record offer up pure badmouthing.
Eventually, a generic road trip – one carrying three generations of women, two of whom are near the beginning of their lives while the third is near the end – allows Harriet to reconnect with her estranged ex (Philip Baker Hall) and her estranged daughter (Anne Heche).
Director Mark Pellington (Arlington Road, The Mothman Prophecies, Henry Pools is Here), working from a screenplay by first-timer Stuart Ross Fink, pays his respects and then some by showcasing MacLaine. But the screenplay has too many shaky contrivances, too many motivations glossed over, too many subplots that distract rather than expand, and too little internal logic.
But then there’s mistress of ceremonies MacLaine at the film’s center, as commanding and watchable as ever, refusing to make her character particularly likable or sympathetic or empathetic. But fascinating nonetheless.
So we’ll sum up 2-1/2 stars out of 4 for a problematic dramedy that limps to the finish line, but still serves as a touching reminder of why Shirley MacLaine is legitimately legendary.