There’s a piece of great advice in “The Last Word,” courtesy of a character who is reluctant to speak ill of an acquaintance: “If you don’t have anything nice to say about someone, say nothing at all.”
If that standard were to be applied to this movie review, it would render it the world’s shortest piece of film criticism. The story of a lonely, ailing and unlovable crank (Shirley MacLaine) who tries to bully a young, socially isolated obituary writer (Amanda Seyfried) into helping her burnish her legacy is just as weird and unrewarding an endeavor as it sounds. How ironic — in a movie about the power of truthful writing — that the screenplay (by first-timer Stuart Ross Fink) is so tin-eared and phony that it seems to have been written by a team of Martian anthropologists with no familiarity whatsoever with actual human behavior, after one week in the field.
Director Mark Pellington (“I Melt With You”) at least recognizes that the setup is little more than a freakish showcase for MacLaine do her blunt-spoken-battle-ax thing. (“She puts the b---- in obituary,” Seyfried cracks, in one of the few sassy lines in the script that actually land.) MacLaine chews up the scenery and spits it out, with a bitter distaste, as Harriet Lauler, a wealthy business executive who has lived her life as if every bridge (and bystander) were to be burned to the ground, as a matter of course. For some fans of MacLaine, there may be a perverse pleasure taken in watching her character halfheartedly try to make amends with her still loving but mistreated ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall) and an estranged and still angry adult daughter (Anne Heche), as Harriet’s chronicler, Anne, tags along behind her, notepad in hand.
Yes, that’s just how obituary writers work.
There is, however, no joy in watching Harriet’s other sidekick, a young African American girl (Ann’Jewel Lee) whom Harriet has picked out of a school for disadvantaged children, treated almost like a piece of property. The unseemly racism embodied by this miniature version of the Magical Negro stock character — who curses like a sailor but is just waiting to be polished by her white benefactor so that she can, in turn, confer redemption on Harriet — is nauseating.
Cue the montages of spontaneous dancing and late-night skinny-dipping, signaling that all three characters have bonded, against great odds, even as they prepare to leave their chrysalis form and turn into the human butterflies they have been along. Could there even be love in store for Anne, in the form of the radio station manager (Thomas Sadoski) who hires Harriet as his new morning-drive DJ — based on nothing more than a shared love of the Kinks? I ain’t telling.
Not because it would be mean. But because you already know the answer to that question, in a moribund movie that doesn’t have a spontaneous, surprising — or genuine — bone in its body. May it rest in peace.
R. At area theaters. Contains crude language. 108 minutes.