Directed by Mark Pellington, The Last Word is an American comedy-drama film released in 2017. It opens by zooming in on the life of a retired businesswoman- Harriet Lauler (played by Shirley MacLaine). Seemingly friendless and eccentric, she comes out as a control freak bent on perfection as she treats her landscaper and cook condescendingly.
She is sick of life, her empty bungalow proclaiming the pangs of loneliness encapsulating her existence.
It is a sad but accurate portrayal of how some wealthy and successful people’s lives are- a home full of servants, an empty house, left with no loved one by their side. What could be a worse repercussion of a productive life?
Half-heartedly, she tries to end her life but instead gets into an irritable confrontation with her physician.
She returns to the emptiness, and while cleaning the spilled wine with a newspaper, she catches sight of an obituary. Phrases like ‘beloved teacher,’ ‘kind, thoughtful woman,’ ‘friends and family,’ ‘remembered,’ and ‘loving mother’ immediately seize her attention.
All of it probably makes her conscious of the absence of these qualities in her own life, so she decides to have her obituary written while she’s still alive.
Unannounced, she marches into the offices of her town’s local paper (which, as she reminds its current editor-in-chief, she had saved on many occasions during her successful career in advertising) and demands to meet its obituary writer – a young, disaffected Anne Sherman (played by Amanda Seyfried).
Propelled by her insecurities and knowledge, she goes on to criticize some of the obituaries Anne had written, professing that whatever Anne had heard of the deceased from other people was sprinkled with politeness as an outcome of their being dead.
She demands that Anne writes her obituary not after she dies but within a short period, and the reason she gives- “As a reasonable woman, the thought of leaving my obituary to chance is completely unreasonable to me.” She wants herself to be projected as excellent, and her achievements immortalized, as Anne had successfully done for the others.
The truth of the matter, however, is that she had not been on good terms with most of her acquaintances. One person, when asked to say something nice about her, went to such lengths to say, “If she were dead, that would be nice. How’s that?” Another called her a ‘human black cloud.’
In short, nobody had anything nice to say about her. After all, one can make someone concoct a good obituary for them, but they cannot compel their acquaintances to view them in a favorable light if they choose otherwise.
Writing with whatever knowledge she gained from the unsatisfactory meetings, Anne presents to her the first draft, which, no doubt, disappoints Harriet. Harriet condescendingly remarks that Anne is not a good enough writer by which the latter is provoked and hurt and tells Harriet in clear words that the problem isn’t with her writing but with the subject herself.
After much contemplation, Harriet comes up with four essential elements to a great obituary which she shares with Anne. One, the deceased should have the love and affection of the family. Two, the deceased should be admired by their coworkers. Three, the deceased must have touched someone’s life unexpectedly, and if said person was a minority or a cripple, so much the better. The fourth and last one is the wild card – a statement of wonder and breadth that is the opening line of the obituary.
From that day, both begin to work on the four elements pertinent to Harriet’s life and ‘to write a story before it’s over’ in Amanda’s words.
As Anne unearths the nuances of Harriet’s life, she finds herself softening towards the old woman and on the verge of developing respect for her. Harriet, too, starts caring about Anne in a more personal way, as is evident from her invite to Anne for tea at her home, even though she had thrown her out of there once.
The one performer who can match MacLaine’s fire is newcomer Ann’Jewel Lee, who plays an impoverished black girl who Harriet cynically befriends in order to bolster instances of selflessness in her obituary.
Whatever the viewer’s perception of Harriet is in the beginning, it is gradually altered as she develops a close bond with both Anne and the little girl. The times they spend together are worth watching again and again.
As Harriet attempts to reconcile with the people from her past, including her former colleagues, her ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall), and her estranged daughter (Anne Heche), The Last Word veers towards a meaningful end.
The movie has its flaws but is nevertheless delightful to watch, imbued with life lessons that the viewer is compelled to ponder over. “Don’t have a nice day; you'll be miserable,” Harriet said. “Have a day that matters!”
It is never too late to start living the life you have always aspired for. So, build the life you love. Soften a hardened heart. Mend a broken soul. But, perhaps, more importantly, live, laugh and love, for our life is only a gift and the task at hand - only to relish it!
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