I don't think there are enough awards for film, do you? (That's a joke, just in case my extremely dry humor doesn't translate to the printed page very well). Therefore, I propose a new, highly sought after award, just for those niche independent films that value a certain je ne sais quoi in their presentations: The Quirky. The Quirky will be given to films that not only excel in the, well, quirkiness of their subject matter, but also their execution and performance style. My first winner for this exciting new award is The Last Word, an odd if oddly agreeable little film starring Wes Bentley as Evan, a man who ghostwrites suicide notes (first goal achieved, for niche subject matter). Evan manages to stumble into a relationship with Charlotte (Winona Ryder), the sister of one of Evan's deceased "clients," and that, along with a subplot involving Evan's handling of a new "client," Abel (the alternately hysterical and surprisingly doleful Ray Romano), makes up the gist of a film that careens rather madly at times between very dark ruminations on alienation and mortality and a series of more madcap, if very dark, comedic elements. It's a perfect quirk-fest, but your reaction to it may be predicated more on your tolerance for small scale character studies than any intrinsic worth in the film itself.
Evan is a taciturn and close-lipped Gen X-er who makes his way around L.A. via public transportation, something that's a bit of a running gag in the film. We see him working on writing assignments, as it were, in a series of lunch meetings with various people who are entertaining thoughts of suicide. Evan is quick with a literary quote and/or allusion ("Better than having your own opinion," he tells Charlotte in an aside later in the film), and seems to be nursing some sort of deep seated spiritual wound, something that is expounded on, if not entirely satisfactorily, as the film develops. He also visits the gravesites of those clients of his who actually follow through on their most morbid fantasies, and thus he ends up meeting Charlotte, a sad and lonely girl evidently as wounded as Evan is, though the crux of her spiritual woes is never really deeply explored. Somehow these two start a tentative relationship, unfortunately one built upon a lie, as Evan, in a fit of panic when Charlotte approaches him at the internment, tells her he went to college with her late brother.
Playing out against this in a literal kind of counterpoint is Evan's situation with Abel, a depressed composer who, after a disastrous symphonic premiere, has been relegated to writing "hold music." I must say that that particular compositional genre must be quite lucrative considering the swanky studio (complete with full orchestra) in which Abel is ensconced in one scene. Abel is, of course, just as desperate and alienated as Evan and Charlotte are, but he manages to actually reach out to Evan in a more natural way than Charlotte's initially kind of obsessive attempts.
This is a very interesting premise highlighted by some very sharp writing by scenarist-director Geoff Haley, fairly new to the director's chair after an impressive slew of steadicam operating work over the past few years. If the down and dirty elements of the film are largely consigned to a literal junkheap in a jokey finale that makes all that goes before sort of silly rather than profound, the journey itself is full of some wonderful interactions and some especially fine performances by its leading trio. Bentley enacts Evan's slow awakening to his own pain and need for some sort of social interaction in a very appealingly low key way. This is a character who speaks very little, but Bentley manages to convey a lot just through facial expressions, which makes a sudden eruption into rage toward the end of the film all the more remarkable. Ryder is, thankfully, a little less tic-filled than she can sometimes be, and crafts a nicely vulnerable Charlotte. There's less information given about this character in Haley's writing, but Ryder manages to create a full-blooded character who may not have clear motives, but who in her own way seems very real.
Romano has some great moments as Abel, although the character is kind of like Ray Barone on Quaaludes. With those droopy eyes and raspy voice, there's probably no actor better suited to portray a depressed soul, but Romano manages to coax some real humor, and a fair degree of pathos, out of a character that is really one of the weirdest examples of comedy relief to ever visit a modern film. His scene with Bentley where he reveals his special brand of stress relief is especially winning, with one of the best punchlines in the film.
Haley is a talent to watch, that's for sure. If The Last Word isn't fully realized, it is skillfully made and superbly performed, certainly two signs that Haley is largely in charge of his directorial craft. Add to that some wonderfully written moments that explore three awkward characters fumbling about for some semblance of human feeling, and for my money there's no better first inductee into the Quirky Hall of Fame.
The Last Word is presented in a 2.35:1 OAR (1080i) with an AVC encode and, for a film of its obviously smaller budget, looks rather nice, if not overwhelmingly so. Colors are very lifelike, with good saturation, and natural looking contrast. A lot of this film was shot on the fly in locations around L.A., and the entire film has a slightly overexposed look that perfectly mirrors Los Angeles' sunny-hazy clime.
Both the DTS-HD MA 5.1 and DD 5.1 mixes are fine, though 5.1 is more than a bit of overkill for this quiet film. In fact the surround channels are very rarely utilized, usually for some ambient environmental effects and occasionally for the indy-pop underscore (which, to be fair, also includes a lovely bossa nova tune by Katia Moraes). English and Spanish subtitles are available.
Not much in the extras department, unfortunately. About 9 minutes of deleted scenes give a tiny bit more background on Charlotte, as well as a jettisoned subplot featuring another client of Evan's. There's also a photo gallery and the theatrical trailer. A commentary might have been nice on a feature this unusual.
This is a film that's impossible to pigeonhole, and that's a good thing. It's not perfect by any means, and really could have used a stronger third act, but there's enough here to make a case for Haley being a major new talent. Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet