As strange as the comparison may seem, I found myself continually reminded of Netflix’s Bojack Horseman while watching The Last Word. Thematically and structurally, the plots are very similar as an aging wealthy recluse comes to grips with their own mortality by enlisting the help of a young writer to tell their life story. However, whereas Bojack works primarily because it constantly subverts your expectations toward character growth and delves deep into the downward spiral of depression to mine some dark laughs, The Last Word isn’t quite so profound, and instead opts to trade on feel-good schmaltz that causes film’s mild laughs to become overshadowed by a character growth that means nothing.
Shirley MacLaine plays Harriet, a wealthy former businesswoman who feels a perpetual need to be in control, often doing the jobs of her housekeeping staff because she believes herself able to do better. However, this is a lonely existence, and attempts suicide by taking sleeping pills with a large helping of red wine. The attempt fails, but it leaves Harriet with a nagging sense that she has not left a proper mark of her achievements behind. Using her connections with a local newspaper, she recruits Anne (Amanda Seyfried) to write her obituary while she is still alive, and the begrudging odd couple seeks to find something good to write about Harriet through measured and calculated life changes.
MacLaine and Seyfried have excellent comic timing, which helps to mitigate the sometimes lackluster jokes the screenplay has to offer. There are genuine laughs to be had, but not nearly as many as one would hope from a comedy. This has a lot to do with a certain tone-deafness to certain issues where Harriet is being particularly spiteful and manipulative. One scene shows Harriet speaking to a group of at-risk youth about pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps and achieving, but doesn’t carry the sense of irony necessary to make a scene where a privileged white woman lectures a group of poor children of color work, instead relying on Harriet’s rudeness to carry the comedy. Another scene is set up to reunite Harriet with her estranged daughter, only to have Harriet’s cruelty push her away again and the film expects this to play for laughs. This type of comedy only works if we’re told that the character is meant to be seen as a poor example, but Anne is pretty much always willing to let Harriet’s slights slide by without reproach.
This leads to an odd sort of non-arc for Harriet, in which Anne becomes more and more attached to this spiteful old woman without Harriet having to change in the slightest to be a more respectable, decent human being. The film does attempt to show Harriet as a kinder person by the film’s final moments, but it rings false, particularly because we’ve watched Anne grow and change into a more self-confident person through her relationship with Harriet, so the lack of development on Harriet’s part is all the more glaring.
This is where the comparison to Bojack Horseman falls apart, as The Last Word almost entirely lacks the cutting introspective element that makes that show so great. What we have instead is a film built around a character arc that we never really see play out, and while it is intermittently funny, it rings hollow as a weekly sitcom. In Bojack, the title character once starred in a shallow sitcom called Horsin’ Around. The Last Word shares more in common with Horsin’ Around than it does with the thematically similar (and superior) Bojack Horseman. The cartoon is funnier and smarter by far.