Harriet Lauler (Shirley MacLaine) was a fireball as a middle-aged head of her own advertising agency. Only problem was her inability to trust others to do their jobs. Now 82 years old, she lives alone in a mansion and still demonstrates that she's a control freak by how she relates to her gardener and housekeeper. She is divorced from her husband (Philip Baker Hall) and hasn't seen her estranged daughter Elizabeth (Anne Heche) for years. Descending into a pit of depresson, Harriet fails in a suicide attempt by taking an overdose of pills.
Then after reading positive portraits of people she's known in the local newspaper's obituaries, she convinces the editor (Tom Everett Scott) to have Anne (Amanda Seyfried) write her up. This young woman takes a list of 100 names and discovers that no one has a kind word or positive memory of Harriet Lauler. So the aggressive old woman studies a wide range of obituaries and comes up with four necessary ingredients of a positive portrait:
- the subject is loved by family
- she is admired by co-workers
- she has touched someone's life unexpectedly,
- she has triumphed in some "wildcard" achievement.
Harriet pressures Anne to help her assemble this kind of legacy. The two women gradually develop a friendship that enables them to embark on several adventures.
The central point of The Last Word is the universal need for men and women to pass on a legacy to others. Harriet keeps saying "I am who I am," but it turns out she's not any more sure about her essential identity than Anne is about hers. The two women have quite a bit in common.
Andrew Weil has written:
"Legacy writing is a way of documenting your life experiences, values, and opinions to share with others. It can be a cherished gift to family and loved ones, and healing for the writers themselves."
This slow-moving drama shifts into high gear as Harriet takes under her wings a feisty little black girl named Brenda (Ann'Jewel Lee). She completely surprises Anne by landing a job as a radio DJ based on her lifelong love and knowledge of music. At the same time, she introduces the lonely obit writer to Robin (Thomas Sadoski), the radio station chief.
Sadly all of these incidents plus a few others do not wear well and director Mark Pellington seems unable to end the film; you think it's wrapping up, and then the three leads head out to do something else. Nonetheless, we are willing to tolerate these flaws in the script because we find ourselves interested in Harriet's struggle to give her life meaning. The Last Word is one of the few films to take on this important step in the spiritual work of all elders.