The Last Word is one of those movies where you perk up at the beginning, thinking you're about to see something unique and memorable, only to watch it collapse on itself as it continues, surrendering to formula and cliché. It has the ingredients for a terrific, dark little comedy/drama, including a marvelously unexpected supporting performance by Ray Romano. But that's buried underneath a tiresome romance with a quirky girl that you've seen a thousand times before, better.
Wes Bentley (from American Beauty, remember him?) stars as Evan, a freelance writer who is making a fine living as a suicide-note-writer-for-hire. He meets with your more deliberate suicide cases, taking in their thoughts and complaints, crafting them into well-worded poems and prose and collecting his cash before they bump themselves off. It's rather a ridiculous concept, but totally credible in the film; in all fairness, you can operate just about any insane business with the right website.
Evan sometimes visits the funerals of his clients, and at one, he meets Charlotte (Winona Ryder), the sister of the dearly departed. She strikes up a conversation and asks him how he knew her brother; he, of course, doesn't divulge. She's attracted to him, for whatever reason--Bentley's an okay-looking guy, I guess, but the character is an anti-social cipher--and they begin an odd courtship that, frankly, writer/director Geoffrey Haley doesn't quite sell. Ryder's not to blame; she's warm and winning. Bentley, I'm not so sure. It's hard to tell if he's too committed to his closed-off character, or if it's just a wooden performance. I lean more towards the latter, since his work remains pretty stiff even in the expected third-act crises. Any way you slice it, despite Ryder's best efforts, they generate very little chemistry; many of their scenes just kind of lie there, and the arc of their relationship will surprise everyone who has never seen a romantic comedy before, ever.
Evan's relationship with Charlotte isn't nearly as interesting as his relationship with Abel (Romano), his latest client. Abel is a promising composer turned Muzak arranger, a bitter, grouchy misanthrope, and the character is a good deal darker than we're used to seeing Mr. Romano play. His romantic advice to Evan is mostly unprintable (suffice it to say that the second half is "Sodomy changes shit. Trust me."), and he likes to blow off steam by finding random babies in public and pulling mean faces until they cry ("I've got news for you," he says, by way of defending himself, "just because you're short and chubby, that doesn't mean you're not an asshole. That kid was a dick!"). Romano hasn't had the best luck making the transition to film (most of his features so far, aside from the animated Ice Age movies, have bombed or gone straight to disc), but this is far and away his most interesting work in the medium, and will hopefully catch the eye of a casting director or two who might consider him for some edgier character work.
Evan and Abel's tentative friendship comes to a conclusion that is far more satisfying than the romance with Charlotte; their big blow-out fight is the kind of scene that gets thrown out of a college screenwriting class, an obvious collection of platitudes shouted at top volume because there are no subtleties to play. It's an unfortunate conclusion, but an appropriate one--we've seen everything else coming from a mile away.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer nicely showcases Kees Van Oostrum's fine cinematography. The image is crisp, with deep blacks and nice contrast; colors are bright and rich, with no compression or digital artifacts apparent.
The 5.1 mix is surprisingly active for such a quiet, low-key, dialogue heavy picture. Much of that is thanks to the sharp (if somewhat Thomas Newman-derivative) score by John Swihart, which features plenty of bass to keep the LFE channel lively. Directional sound effects are also quite good, particularly in the immersive restaurant and (especially) nightclub scenes.
Bonus features are pretty light, but about what you'd expect for a festival indie going straight to DVD. First are a total of six Deleted Scenes, running a total of about ten minutes. Four of them are pretty dispensable romantic relationship scenes, though we do get two axed scenes with the always-welcome Larry Miller. There's also a brief Production Stills Gallery (0:52) and a Trailer (1:50), which accurately captures the picture's tone but also totally spoils the closing scene. If you're planning to watch the movie, by all means, don't watch the damn trailer.
After a promising start, The Last Word flounders in the second and third act as its formula romance basically takes over the movie. That's a shame, because it's got some interesting ideas, witty dialogue, and fine performances from Romano and Ryder. Haley has a good eye for composition and apparently works well with actors, so he might have a future as a director, though he might want to work with a screenwriter other than himself.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.