The Last Word (2017)


Even in the movies selfies must be taken.

(2017) Dramedy (Bleecker Street) Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Sadoski, Gedde Watanabe, Anne Heche, Tom Everett Scott, Todd Louiso, Joel Murray, Yvette Freeman, Valerie Ross, Steven Culp, Adina Porter, Chloe Wepper, John Billingsley, Sarah Baker, Nicki McCauley, Marshall Bell, Marcy Jarreau, Brooke Trantor. Directed by Mark Pellington

 

As we get older we begin reflecting on our lives; the accomplishments we’ve made, the opportunities we’ve squandered. It’s a natural part of the process. For some, however, that’s simply not enough.

For Harriet Lauler (MacLaine) life is all about control. She’s a smart, tough woman who built an ad agency in a small California town into one of the biggest and best, a great accomplishment for anyone but particularly for a woman in the era she was doing the building. In the process, she alienated just about everyone; her husband (Hall) from whom she has been divorced for decades, her daughter (Heche) with whom she hasn’t spoken in five years but the separation between the two had been going on for far longer and eventually her colleagues who couldn’t stand her domineering and belittling. Even her gynecologist and priest can’t stand the sight of her.

As she reads the obituaries of contemporaries, she knows that when she goes her obituary will read like a greeting card and say nothing about what she’s accomplished. To prevent that from happening, she goes to the local newspaper which her company kept afloat for years and commandeered their obituary, perky young Anne (Seyfried) to write her obituary while she’s still alive so that Harriet can make sure it’s up to snuff.

As Anne gets into this daunting task, the frustration grows with both the job and with Harriet whom, in one angry moment, Anne exclaims “She put the bitch in obituary!” This being one of those movies, the two women begin to find common ground and help each other grow. Harriet, hoping to get a “she unexpectedly touched the life of…” lines in her obit also commandeers Brenda (Lee), a cute as a button street-smart urchin, the “at-risk” youth as the kids today call it.

There isn’t anything in this movie you haven’t already seen in dozens of other movies like it. The script is like it came out of a beginning screenwriting class by someone who’s seen a lot of movies but has no ideas of their own. What the movie has going for it is MacLaine. Ever since Terms of Endearment she has owned the curmudgeon role and has perfected it in dozens of movies since. This is more of the same and I frankly can’t see what attracted her to this part; she’s done dozens like it and this character isn’t really written as well as the others. Still, MacLaine is a force of nature, a national treasure who at 82 is still going strong but one should take any opportunity to see her perform, even in a movie like this.

Seyfried is getting a bit long-in-the-tooth for doing waif-ish ingénue roles. She still has those big doe eyes and pouty lips that give her the physical attributes but she is much smarter than parts like this allow her to get. She does get a few good zingers off but her character has so little backbone – and it is sooo inevitable she’s going to grow one by the end credits – you expect her to be blown to kingdom come by Harriet, but that never really happens and it is to Seyfried’s credit she holds her own with MacLaine.

There really is no reason for the movie to have the street-smart urchin in it. Lee in particular is cute enough but she suffers from the curse of child actors – she doesn’t act so much as pretend. The difference is noticeable and you never believe the character for a moment but then again Brenda doesn’t really add anything to the movie that couldn’t have been delivered there by an adult. I suppose they wanted her in there so that she could appeal to the grandchild instincts of the target audience.

I can’t say this was a disappointment because the trailer was pretty unappealing but for the most part this is disposable as it gets. You won’t waste your time seeing this exactly but then again you won’t make the most of it either which, ironically, is the message Harriet is trying to deliver to Anne. Definitely the filmmakers got an “A” in Irony 101.

REASONS TO GO: MacLaine is one of the last of the old-time movie stars and any chance to see her is worth taking.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary child actor alert.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s world premiere was actually here in the U.S. at the AFI Latin American Film Festival last September.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bucket List
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Comedian

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Parental Guidance


No matter how much they stretch, they can't make the kid any taller.

No matter how much they stretch, they can’t make the kid any taller.

(2012) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott, Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush, Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, Gedde Watanabe, Jennifer Crystal Foley, Rhoda Griffis, Tony Hawk, Steve Levy, Christine Lakin. Directed by Andy Fickman

Spare the rod and spoil the child is how the saying went. Parenting has changed a lot since then. These days, we’re about making sure our little tykes have enough self-esteem to carry them through the painful years of growing up. Self-discipline? Courtesy for others? Those are concepts as outdated as powdered wigs.

Artie Decker (Crystal) has a good life. He’s the voice of the Fresno Grizzlies, is married to Diane (Midler) who has supported him throughout his career. Their only daughter, Alice (Tomei) lives in Atlanta with her husband Phil (Scott), a programmer who’s created software that essentially controls the home with voice commands, and their three children. Artie and Diane rarely get to see their grandkids and Artie sorta likes it that way.

However, things turn upside down in a hurray as they tend to do. Artie is fired by the Grizzlies who are looking for a less “old school” announcer. Then Phil, whose product is up for an award, wants to take Alice with him for a little vacation in Hilton Head. The other grandparents who usually babysit aren’t available. Desperate for the first vacation they’ve had in five years, Alice asks her parents to come by and take care of the kids. Diane is ecstatic. Phil, not so much.

From here it gets pretty predictable; you’ve got blossoming Harper (Madison) who is practicing the violin for a future spot in her favorite philharmonic – but first she’s got to get a spot in the Atlanta Youth Symphony which is far from a sure thing and she’s stressing about it like a Republican at a Greenpeace convention. Turner (Rush) has a stammer and this gets him picked on like nobody’s business in middle school. Finally there’s little Barker (Breitkopf) who is a five-year-old terror who doesn’t like being told what to do but can be bribed into doing it.

Phil and Alice have raised these kids in a touchy feely new age kind of parenting style in which “use your words” has replaced time outs, t-ball games have replaced outs and scores with eventual hits and ties and self-esteem has replaced responsibility and consequences. You can tell the writers tend to place more faith in old school methods.

The outcome is pretty much pre-determined; Grandma and Grandpa are going to mess up (particularly Grandpa who is pretty much an oaf) but eventually, they are going to get these poor messed-up kids from being neurotic and borderline head cases into healthy and well-adjusted in the space of a weekend. It’s wonderful how a game of kick-the-can in the rain can wash away all of a kid’s issues.

Not wanting to get involved overly much in the political correctness of it, you really aren’t going to remember what parenting lessons, if any, are passed down here. Mostly you’re going to remember Billy Crystal and you’re going to remember just how good he was at shtick. It’s been ten years since he’s done a lead role in a live-action movie (I looked it up on iMDB – his last significant role in a movie that wasn’t an animated feature was 2002’s Analyze That. To me, that’s a waste of an amazing talent; when he’s on, Crystal is one of the funniest men alive – still. He’s pushing 60 and playing a grandparent but the man still can string together a gaggle of zingers to keep audiences of any age in stitches. He doesn’t do it often enough here though.

The divine miss M is given the indignity of dancing on a stripper pole (relax, she’s teaching a class) that harkens back to her days as one of the bawdiest performers in show business, and one of the most fun. She mostly kvetches here – see how all the Yiddishisms are creeping into my review which should give you an idea of how the rhythms of this movie go – but she does get to sing a couple of songs including a duet with Crystal on the 50s standard “Book of Love” which is charming.

Tomei is one of those actresses who can be memorable at any given moment but she seems a little lost here, although she gets a father-daughter scene with Crystal which works nicely. I think the material is a little bit beneath her but hey, it’s a paycheck.

The acting here is pretty much at ham level. SO much is overplayed that you find yourself rolling your eyes in a lot of places. Also, the humor is pretty low-brow; crotch shots for Crystal who responds by vomiting on a kid, urinating at the X-Games and plenty of caca to go around. If your aiming at an audience of 5-year-olds, this is the way to go.

I wish I could have loved this movie and despite an overabundance of sentiment, I might still have loved it if it simply didn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator. There are plenty of wonderful statements to make about the joys and pitfalls of parenting – and grandparenting – but the filmmakers chose to make none of them. Instead what we have is kind of an embarrassing mess that is saved only by Crystal’s riffing and if you don’t find that palatable, you are really going to hate this movie.

REASONS TO GO: Billy Crystal does a bang-up job.

REASONS TO STAY: Schmaltzy. Relies on toilet humor far too much. Lots and lots of overacting.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some mildly rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Crystal has hosted the Oscars nine times, second only to Bob Hope who hosted the ceremony 18 times.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100. The reviews have been pretty bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spy Next Door

MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL LOVERS: Artie is the radio announcer for the Fresno Grizzlies baseball team, the San Francisco Giants AAA affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. Artie broadcasts a game from Chukchansi Park, the actual stadium the Grizzlies play in – although he talks about the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes as a potential opponent when in fact the Quakes play in the California League, not the PCL.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mystic River