DIRECTOR MARK PELLINGTON MAKES WATCHING AN ACTIVE AND VITAL FUNCTION
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: (l-r) Amanda Seyfried as Anne, Shirley MacLaine as Harriet, and AnnJewel Lee Dixon as Brenda in ‘The Last Word’ Rating: R; Grade: B-
Movies are a visual medium, but rarely do they focus on the acting of watching and seeing, especially from the perspective of characters. The narrative drive is action-oriented, even in smaller independent fare, where characters might not do much more than walk and talk.
That’s part of what makes “The Last Word” such a curious exercise. Director Mark Pellington, who began his career in music videos (shooting clips for the likes of Leonard Cohen, The Jungle Brothers, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews, and the Foo Fighters), has shown an affinity for guiding audiences through the process of watching. He has translated music into images, not simply or necessarily rooted in the construction of straightforward narratives. Pellington has proven to be inspired by rhythm and movement and emotion as shortcuts into the human psyche.
His latest feature film, “The Last Word” would, on the surface, appear to be a conventional story. Harriet (Shirley MacLaine) is a retired businesswoman and busybody, the kind of obsessive control freak that might have triggered the psychiatric community to consider studying such tendencies in the first place. There is nothing that she sees others doing that she can’t do better, and she can’t stop herself from taking over. She goes to her favorite salon, sits in the chair, takes the scissors from her stylist and does her own hair. Or she strides out of the house, grabs the trimmers from her groundskeeper, and does her own hedges. We hear, in firsthand testimony from her gynecologist, that Harriet got up in the stirrups, conducted her own exams, and diagnosed herself, forcing her doctor to reimburse Harriet for visit co-pays.
So, it comes as no surprise when Harriet decides to seek out Anne (Amanda Seyfried), the obituary writer in her community, and commission her to pen a fitting summation with extensive notes and direction. This sets up a classic situation, with Harriet and Anne at odds with one another, in a generational clash full of familiar beats and situational comedic rhymes that have been sampled countless times before. We know that Anne will bristle initially under Harriet’s dominating presence, but then rise up to challenge her, gaining her begrudging respect, while also introducing Harriet to some facet of life that she has ignored or forgotten.
Rather than spend undue attention on these elements, Pellington works his magic by tapping into the talents of his leads. Both MacLaine and Seyfried use their eyes and the act of watching to reveal who these women truly are.
All of those early scenes with MacLaine that were supposed to show us how bitchy and obnoxious she is, how she belittles those around her, serve a completely different function under Pellington’s capable command. Instead, he wants us to appreciate how Harriet “sees” the world. As a woman who went into business in an age when women weren’t encouraged to do anything more than stay at home, she had to work twice as hard to get ahead, but it was this ability to watch and learn and adapt immediately in the moment that opened doors for Harriet. She has had a lifetime of studying the way things work and doing them for herself. She didn’t have sisters-in-arms at her side.
And MacLaine has the steely gaze to go along with her own extensive experiences, forging her own path in a male-dominated field. The real pure joy of “The Last Word” comes from living in the quiet moments with this great actress as she takes it all in. Who needs to walk and talk all the time, right?
Thankfully though, MacLaine’s not alone. Seyfried comes equipped with a set of peepers like no other actress of her age, but what matters, in her case, is that behind her eyes she conveys a fierce intelligence. It is too bad that, up to now, she hasn’t enjoyed material that allowed this light to shine. In “The Last Word,” she stares down MacLaine without wilting, and she lets us know that while Anne may be struggling to find her reflection, her vision and sense of self is certainly coming into focus.