What will we write about you when you die?
One way to enjoy the new movie “The Last Word” is to think about the influences of journalism on our lives. Particularly print journalism. The events of the film begin, after all, when one of the main characters begins to speculate about what will be in her newspaper obituary.
Shirley MacLaine, who appeared in K-State’s McCain Auditorium in the last couple of years, plays this aging professional woman. Harriet is a comical sort of pain in the rump. She seems to have no friends. Divorced, she hasn’t seen her only child in a couple of decades. And her gardener, cook, and hairdresser have all learned to defer whenever she appears.
Her priest admits to hating her.
But Harriet is rich and influential. She demands and gets a spur of the moment interview with the local newspaper publisher (played by Thomas Everett Scott of “That Thing You Do”). He then calls in his obituary writer, a young woman whose main professional virtue has been her willingness to ignore the unfortunate personalities of some of her subjects.
Under orders from Harriet, Ann (Amanda Seyfried, returning to acting after a pregnancy) turns out a single paragraph. Then the older woman instructs her on the four components of a satisfactory (for her) obituary.
It must contain information suggesting her family life has been successful. It must contain some praise from her former professional colleagues. It must show that the subject has become an benefactor to or a mentor for a disadvantaged child— preferably African-American and if possible physically handicapped. And then there should be something she refers to as “the wild card,” something highly personal.
Ann—journalist arbiter of what is worthy in life—tells Harriet she will have to work to produce the circumstances which will allow a four-point obit of this kind to be written about her. The retired advertising executive delivers a speech (and a check) to a program for “at risk” little girls, identifies one of her audience members as a spark plug, and begins taking Brenda (AnnJewel Lee) with her everywhere she goes, initially just to teach the kid how to speak without swearing.
Next a former associate of Harriet’s shows Ann a video-tape of the argument that led to the old girl’s expulsion from her job as a partner in the ad agency. The events on the tape are not completely clear. This is one of the places in “Last Word” where director Mark Pellington probably should have redoubled his efforts but didn’t. At any rate, the associate still holds Harriet as a hero.
Then Harriet, holding her nose as she gets into the reporter’s scuzzy Volvo, takes Ann and Brenda with her to visit the daughter. Despite Harriet’s fears, Elizabeth (Anne Heche) has established some real points for her own obituary. She is a doctor with two children and a husband. Her life is happy though she has recently been determined to have involuntary compulsions— like her over-neat mother.
So all that’s wanting for Harriet’s write-up is a “wild card.” And her odd admiration for disc jockeys, something she shares with Ann, leads to her second profession and to a possible “lead” for her obituary. It also gets The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” included in the soundtrack.
As the film runs, we learn more about Dewey Decimal System-hating Brenda, Ann, and Harriet. Ann still thinks a lot about her mother’s unexpected desertion, something that occurred twenty years before. The reporter has been writing essays ever since, but they may display a personal passivity that is the basis of her problems.
There’s a bonding scene toward the end of the film, a nice little characters in nature business that seems artificial but is heartening. And this is the way the movie is throughout. It isn’t made to strict critical standards. But it is pleasant.
And in the end “Last Word” suggests that newspapers are important enough to deserve disinterested support, if for no other reason than without them there wouldn’t be the threat of obituaries to motivate current action.