Rated R. Running time: 1 hour48 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 0; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 3.5
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
and favor is better than silver or gold.
A good name is better than precious ointment,
and the day of death, than the day of birth.
The aged Harriet Lauler is such a control freak that she even wants to control how her obituary will read, but the problem is her name is lead rather than gold, and her name smells more like ammonia than a “precious ointment”—but I am getting ahead of the story. This is a cream puff of a movie, but because of its delightful star Shirley MacLaine, it is worth your time at a cheap seat theater.
Disturbed that the obituaries she has just read whitewash people whom she knows to be unpraiseworthy, she begins worrying about her own, which at her advanced age, cannot be too far off. Marching into the editor’s office of Bristol Gazette, she bullies its editor into assigning her his obituary writer Anne (Amanda Seyfried) because of the latter’s writing ability. Once a dynamic and creative head of an advertising agency, she was a key factor in the newspaper’s surviving a financial crisis.
Anne, whose private notebook is full of essays she would prefer to be writing, needs her job, so she reluctantly agrees to meet with Harriet. Given a list of 100 people whom she knows, the young writer starts off on a series of interviews, this sequence perhaps being the funniest of the film. She begins with ex-husband Edward (Philip Baker Hall), whom Harriet described as “a jackass.” He offers a lukewarm assessment of her, and after that it is downhill, virtually everyone else having been alienated by her high-handed ways. One man, his voice dripping with venom, describes her as mean and hateful, with the camera tilting slowly downward to reveal his clergy collar.
Taken aback by the results of Anne’s research, Harriet and she set forth on a make-over based on her study of favorable obituaries. The deceased must have four essential points: 1. Must be loved by family; 2. Looked up to by co-workers; 3. Has touched and lifted up others (preferably a minority or handicapped person); and 4. Has a “wild card,” meaning some unique achievement making the person stand out.
What follows is a mixture of the believable and the unlikely that shows this is definitely a formulaic curmudgeon with a hidden heart of gold film. There is even a 9-year-old black girl named Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon) from the projects dropping F-bombs whom the two pick up at a community agency, part of point 3. We are to believe that Harriet, with her large vinyl collection of golden oldies, is able to talk her way into djaying a morning show on the local radio station on the basis of her sharing with the station manager an admiration for the Kinks—and so on. Of course, Anne’s initial disdain for her subject changes to affection and admiration, especially when Harriet reads part of her notebook and offers her some tough but inspirational advice, and even connects her with a potential soulmate.
Director Mark Pellington and writer Stuart Ross Fink’s film is saved from a train wreck by its star, who is so much better than the material she is given. She even makes us pause and reflect when she receives some bad news near the end of the film.
This review with a set of questions is in the April 2017 issue of VP.