The Last Word

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Paul Asay

Movie Review

Harriett Lauler is right.

She’s not just right about this thing or that thing. She’s right about everything. Hedges should always be trimmed from the bottom to top, she tells her gardener. Lawns should always be cut in a diamond-shaped pattern. And if her longsuffering gardener won’t garden to her satisfaction? Well, she’ll just do it herself.

Naturally, the 81-year-old does a lot by herself.

She slices lemons by herself when her housekeeper fails to chop them correctly. She cuts her own hair when the hairdresser fails to snip to her exacting specifications. She cooks alone. She eats alone. She sleeps alone. She lives alone. And she seems determined to die alone, too. Because really, if anyone dared attend to Harriett on her deathbed, she’d likely revive herself just long enough to demonstrate how to grieve properly.

Aye, there’s the rub: Once she begins pushing up the daisies to her exacting specifications, just who, pray tell, will be writing her obituary? What will they say about her? How will she be remembered? Well. A woman like Harriett can’t leave such an important detail to chance, can she?

She begins reading the work of Anne Sherman, the obituary writer for the local Bristol Gazette. Anne has a knack for saying pleasing things about difficult people: A “devoted animal lover” turned to four-footed friends because humans hated her. A man with a highly contagious venereal disease left, simply, an “indelible mark” on the community. Anne, Harriett knows, will likely be writing her obituary, too. And Harriett is determined that the obit will be a good one.

She sweeps into the paper’s place of business and ascends to the editor’s office. After a few moments of conversation, the editor sidles by Anne’s desk and asks if he might have a word.

“Are you firing me?” Anne asks.

“You should be so lucky,” the editor says.

He gives Anne an unusual assignment: Write Harriett’s obituary now … while she’s still alive. “Make her happy,” the editor says, hoping that a happy Harriett might leave his desperate paper a nice, fat donation in her will.

But making Harriett happy is no easy task—even setting aside her perfectionism—because, well, there may not be a single soul on planet Earth who has something kind to say about her.

Harriett hasn’t spoken to her only daughter in 20 years. Father Piper, a priest, confesses, “I hated her. So much.” Anne prompts another person, “If there’s just one thing you could say about her that’s nice …” The woman’s response? “If she were dead, that would be nice. How’s that?” After several days of research and writing, Anne gives Harriett a one-paragraph obit that the wealthy old crone says is abysmal and unacceptable.

“The problem isn’t with my writing,” Anne retorts. “[It’s] the subject. The problem is with you.”

If Harriett’s to get her positive obituary, she’ll have to resort to desperate measures. Bribes? Threats? Should she simply dictate the obituary she wants written, word by word?

Or should Harriett Lauler start living a life worthy of a glowing obituary? Even at 81, maybe it’s not too late to craft a life worth praising in print.

Because as Harriett well knows, if you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself.

Positive Elements

Harriett is, without question, a … challenging woman. But underneath her yucca-like exterior and acid putdowns lurks eight decades worth of hard-earned wisdom.

“Fail,” she says. “Fail spectacularly. When you fail, you learn. When you fail, you live.”

“Please don’t have a nice day,” she exhorts. “Have a day that matters. … Have a day that means something.”

“Are you willing to take a risk to do something stupid?” She asks a group of schoolgirls. “Are you willing to take a risk to do something great?”

She may be difficult, but no one can ever accuse Harriett of living a life of half-measures. And as Anne learns more about her subject, she grows to appreciate Harriett. Respect her. Even love her.

Indeed, as the story goes on, Harriett, Anne and an at-risk youngster named Brenda become something of a family. As Harriett rediscovers the joy of companionship and love, Anne and Brenda embrace Harriett’s most inspiring adages. And in some ways, they should: Life is about living—living boldly and living well. And while that doesn’t always manifest itself in the best of ways, the core sentiment is absolutely right.

Spiritual Elements

Harriett is, at least nominally, a Christian. But when Anne interviews Father Piper, he describes her as a “hateful, hateful woman” and recounts how she’d always complain about everything in the service, including the quality of the communion wine. Elsewhere, Harriett nods with approval as Brenda says, “God brought you into the world to be something.”

A funeral takes place in a church presided over by a different priest. We see a picture of a smiling “buddy Jesus” painted on a wall. Anne’s father tells her that he prays for her happiness every day.

Sexual Content

When Harriett becomes a disk jockey for a local music radio station, Anne begins a relationship with station owner Robin Sands. Their romance eventually turns sexual, it’s suggested. We don’t see the couple in bed, but we do watch as Anne smells Robin’s shirt, which she’s now wearing, as he lounges shirtless in Anne’s apartment. The two also kiss aggressively on occasion.

Anne, Harriett and Brenda all strip down to their (not-very-revealing) skivvies and gingerly walk into a lake, where they swim and laugh and splash. Anne interviews Harriett’s gynecologist, who crassly describes how Harriett insisted on examining herself. There’s a reference to syphilis and a joke about being sodomized.

Violent Content

Before beginning her obituary project, Harriett tries to commit suicide by swallowing a handful of sleeping pills with what a doctor later says was “a bottle of wine.” “I was sleepy and I was thirsty,” Harriett lies, trying to pass off the suicide attempt as an accident. Later, we see her count out more sleeping pills—preparing to do it again—before she spills her glass of wine and gets distracted.

Crude or Profane Language

More than 15 f-words, many of them uttered by Harriett’s pint-size protégé, Brenda. We also hear about the same number of s-words. God’s name is misused about 10 times, thrice paired with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused three times as well. Other profanities include “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n” and “h—.”

Drug and Alcohol Content

Harriett is shown frequently with a glass of wine and, as mentioned, she tries to kill herself with a combination of prescription sleeping pills and wine. She and a former co-worker have a whiskey “liquid lunch,” with the coworker recalling how much she enjoyed such lunches when they used to work together. Harriett goes to a bar where Anne and Robin are enjoying drinks and, clearly a bit intoxicated herself, tells Anne some rather mean things.

Anne drinks beer and wine. Brenda initially speculates that Harriett’s willingness to help her must be because the older woman “got busted for drunk driving” and is now serving her mandatory community-service sentence.

Other Negative Elements

Harriett initially chooses to help Brenda specifically because she’s a “disadvantaged minority,” which she thinks will look good in her obit. Harriett, Anne and Brenda vandalize a prominent sign at Harriett’s old ad agency. Brenda gets in trouble for rearranging a facility’s books and sassing her supervisor.

Conclusion

The Last Word could use an addendum: This R-rated movie wants to say something, but it seems confused about what that message should be.

Let’s start with this example: Harriett and Brenda’s evolving take on cursing. Harriett first tells Brenda that it’s not advisable to use profanity because it could be taken as a sign of a lazy mind. Right on, the movie seems to say. But then, 45 minutes later, Brenda educates Harriett on the gradations of the f-word—from saying simply “the f-word,” as we would in this review, all the way to Brenda’s nuclear-powered “f—bomb.” Harriett and Anne both find Brenda’s use of the obscenity charming, and we’re invited to laugh at the young girl’s swearing, too.

Then there’s Harriett’s ostensible, film-long voyage of “self-discovery.” The film first suggests Harriett could indeed stand a little softening, that her brusque manner and hateful words really do hurt the people around her. She needs people like Anne in Brenda to show her a better way of being. So we might expect her to undergo a Christmas-morning, Scrooge-like transformation.

But while Harriett’s hardest edges may be filed down a bit, the movie also tells us that Harriett should never change—not really, not essentially. She’s a strong, independent woman who should be respected and admired for her bearish behavior. It’s the rest of the world that has a problem, not me, Harriett might say. In the end, the movie seems to agree with her.

And then you have Anne, the obituary writer whose mother, we learn, deserted her when she was just a little girl. She’s never really gotten over the loss. We hear the sadness, even anger, in Anne’s voice when she talks about her mom.

But as the movie goes on and Anne absorbs more of Harriett’s aphorisms about living a bold, unapologetic life, she remembers a game that she and her mother used to play. They’d spin the globe and point. Wherever Anne’s finger touched, her mother would tell her, that’s where she’d live. And she decides, in a sense, to embrace her mom’s carefree sense of adventure—even though that very sense of adventure doomed any chance Anne ever had of getting to know her.

Early on, when Anne’s father explains that her mother always took chances—that even though he never heard from her again, she’s likely happier now—Anne lashes out, and rightfully so.

“So long as she’s living the dream, that’s all that matters?” Anne asks angrily.

But in the end, the movie seems to say, Yes, that’s all that matters.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with living a life of risk and adventure. God calls us to take chances, I believe. He wants us to embrace our calling—to do, as Brenda says, what He put us in this world to do.

But our God-given callings and our very human desires don’t always match up neatly. Maybe some of us are indeed called to live carefree lives in Spain, as Anne eventually feels a tug to do. But some of us may also called to be obituary writers, too. All sorts of lives—both loud and quiet—can be lives well lived.

Typically, stories that encourage us to slavishly “follow our dreams” simply ignore the pitfalls and costs of those dreams. The Last Word goes one step further. It acknowledges the cost. It acknowledges the pain. And then it tells us to push ahead no matter that cost—even if it means leaving behind a trail of shattered promises and broken hearts.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.