An enduring talent can add a level of class to pedestrian material, even a saccharine effort like “The Last Word.” The film is lucky to have Shirley MacLaine return to her first starring role in years. Unfortunately, both she and we in the audience are out of luck. The film is a misuse of the Oscar-winning star’s talent and a waste of our time. But she does it with flair.
MacLaine plays Harriet Lauler, a prominent retired advertising executive with a perfectionist streak that finds fault in everyone she encounters. When the gardener on her mansion’s spotless grounds trims the hedges against her instructions, top to bottom rather than base to peak, the thorny Harriet confiscates the clippers and dismisses him to do it herself. At the hair salon, she fluffs her own pageboy cut and ignores the stylist’s efforts to chat with her. Then she returns to her dignified home and dines alone, with a side order of merlot and antidepressant medication. She’s publicly indomitable but not invulnerable.
As Harriet reads her local newspaper’s death notices, she sees testaments to family affection, colleagues’ esteem and community respect. Wanting to control her reputation from beyond the grave, she demands creative control over the inevitable eulogy by the paper’s obit writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried, caricaturing what The Kids These Days are like). She imperiously hires Anne to pen a praise-filled tribute citing several hundred approving acquaintances.
But Harriet’s ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall), priest, co-workers and even her gynecologist give Anne nothing but horror stories. When she delivers the bad news, Harriet’s rigid response is to launch a transformative 11th-hour campaign to meet folks, win friends and influence people. She begins touching new lives with a systematic program of calculating altruism and canned warmth. She drags the risk-averse Anne along as her reluctant co-conspirator, “to help shape a legacy instead of just transcribing it.”
MacLaine knows how to play contentious divas. She soared in 1984’s “Terms of Endearment,” 1990’s “Postcards From the Edge” and 2011’s “Bernie,” but this script from first-timer Stuart Ross Fink is convenient and easy to the core.
Instead of making Harriet a three-dimensional piece of work, it turns her into a forgivable fusspot. When she takes over a boring radio station to revive its playlist with old jazz and rock hits, she sandwiches them between verbose tidbits about living in the moment that would have any listener reaching for the dial. She does her community outreach by mentoring an underprivileged black 9-year-old (precocious AnnJewel Lee Dixon) in contrived sassy dialogue that sounds like outtakes from “Diff’rent Strokes.”
The film’s essential drawback isn’t MacLaine’s performing but the thin, inconsistent character she’s assigned. She could do solid work as a lioness or a pussycat, but she doesn’t have the DNA to play a phony.