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Look past its faults to find pleasures of 'The Last Word'

Shirley MacLaine received a standing ovation at the recent Oscars, basking in the warmth bestowed on Hollywood royalty.

Black-and-white footage recalled MacLaine's 1960 Academy Award-nominated performance in "The Apartment," one of five Best Actress nominations in a career that saw her win for "Terms of Endearment" in 1984.

"The Last Word," directed by Mark Pellington ("The Mothman Principles"), is not in the same league as those pictures. It's hackneyed, cliched and ludicrous. But there are pleasures to find if one is willing to look past its faults.

MacLaine plays Harriet Lauler, a wealthy, retired and acerbic-witted advertising executive who, after a close brush with death -- which may or may not have been intentional -- decides to shape the writing of her obituary. Harriet marches into the small-town newspaper, and after reminding the editor of ad buys that once helped keep the paper afloat when his father was in charge, imposes her plan on Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), a young obituary writer. (Let's just say no small newspapers, let alone all but a few big-city papers, have a writer assigned full-time to writing obits.)

Shirley MacLaine stars in "The Last Word."

The two women are utterly mismatched: Harriet, a pioneering feminist in business, is used to throwing her weight around and being indifferent to what others think of her. Anne, on the other hand, is introspective, uncertain beneath her confident veneer and risk-averse. She also carries the pain of her mother's abandonment half a lifetime ago.

With Harriet estranged from her daughter and ex-husband, and no one, including her priest  ("I hate her so much") willing to say something positive about her, Anne is given the unenviable task of larding the octogenarian's  story in an attempt to help salvage her reputation.

A cringe-inducing idea of Harriet's is to mentor Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), an "at-risk" black child with a potty mouth and attitude to match. She thinks this will embellish her image for the obituary, and the child becomes Harriet's precocious sidekick.

There are trips to see Harriet's daughter (Anne Heche), and ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall). There's also an unlikely activity Harriet gets into that, let's say,  is connected to her belief that the Kinks were the most underrated band ever.

Harriet also instigates a meeting between Anne and Robin (Tom Sandoski), who manages a free-form radio station.

It's only a matter of time before generational bonding takes over.

Anne comes to appreciate what Harriet has attained and what it took to get there, and Harriet develops a fondness for the twenty-something with so much ahead of her. Life lessons are dispensed along what becomes more of a two-way street.

It's all pretty predictable, but MacLaine and Seyfried, alone and together, have their moments. The two actresses compensate with passion and professionalism in this paint-by-numbers crowd-pleaser. Despite the weak script, lets just say that gives them the last word.


"The Last Word"

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, AnnJewell Lee Dixon, Philip Baker Hall

Director: Mark Pellington

Running time: 108 minutes

Rated: R for language.

The lowdown: A former advertising executive used to having her way decides she wants a positive obituary before she dies, and imposes herself on a small-town obituary writer to get it.



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