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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Last Word
The Last Word
Image // Unrated // April 21, 2009
List Price: $27.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by David Cornelius | posted May 11, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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It's the sort of premise you'd only find in the movies: a tortured poet who makes a living writing other people's suicide notes winds up falling in love with the sister of one of his newly-deceased clients. And it takes a turn you've found in too many movies before: the poet decides to hide the truth from the sister, and as their relationship grows, so do the lies, until the inevitable scene where she finds out and they have a big fight and...

...wait, really? Is this where "The Last Word" really wants to go? Into flimsy cliché? Guess so. Writer/director Geoffrey Haley delivers much promise in his debut feature's opening scenes; the characters are strong and the mood is just right, allowing us to accept the farfetched set-up quite easily. As Evan, the poet, Wes Bentley delivers an intriguing mix of social awkwardness and haunted loneliness, while early moments introduce us to his strange clientele, chief among them Abel, a morose composer played by Ray Romano, who brings an overload of sadsackiness to his role, with terrific results.

Surely there's something fascinating boiling below Evan's quiet surface, right? Surely he has a rich backstory that has led him to this career. And surely his time spent with Abel will lead to quirky, intelligent discussions on life and death and art. Surely we will be treated to deep thoughts on solitude in the big city, the defeat of one's dreams, dealing with mental illness, finding happiness hidden in the corners of life.

But no. Into this story Haley dumps Charlotte, a motormouthed free spirit, played by Winona Ryder with such verve you want to reach through the screen and tell her not to waste her talents on a role so flat and uninteresting. Once again, her comeback will have to wait.

Charlotte is meant to be a tragic character, hiding her grief behind booze and sex and cheap come-ons; spotting Evan at her brother's funeral, she attaches herself to him for the next few weeks in an effort to ease the pain. But oh, how annoying she is, all those late night drunken phone calls and slutty actions (she thrills at being surrounded by sweaty dancing creeps at a nightclub, and later she talks Evan into exhibitionist rooftop sex). Not only do we not buy the idea of someone as introverted as Evan taking to someone like Charlotte (he's instantly comfortable around her, to the point of pet names and such), we don't buy the idea of us having to take to her, either.

Ryder infuses the character with life, but as written, there's no room for her to grow - she's a walking plot point, nothing more. Her first plot point is to bring Evan out of his shell; her second plot point is to create conflict (Evan's lies); her third plot point is to create further conflict (the discovery of those lies); and so on. Haley ignores all the work he put into setting up the dramatic heft of Evan's world just so he can deal with tired romantic drama formulas.

When Charlotte's not around, we get a glimpse at what the film might have been. Romano is a real delight here, a hateful schlub who enjoys making babies cry; Abel finds a zest for life in all the wrong spots, which makes him far more fresh a character than the forced whimsy of Charlotte's antics. It's he, not Charlotte, that really brightens Evan's life, providing friendship when both had none. When focused on these two, "The Last Word" becomes a sly dark comedy that works.

But all that stuff is buried under a mountain of old hat storytelling. As the film rolls on, we start rooting for Evan's secrets to be uncovered, because that would mean a step closer to the end of a plot thread that doesn't belong in a movie like this.

The DVD

Video & Audio


The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer displays some grain now and then, but nothing out of the ordinary for a small scale film like this. Colors are full and balanced, and detail is crisp.

The soundtrack is offered in both Dolby 5.1 and 2.0. Both are as solid and clean as you'd want from a dialogue-centric movie; the surround track boosts the usage of the rear speakers more than expected. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included.

Extras

Of the six deleted scenes (9:11 total; 2.35:1 anamorphic), four add little character touches between Evan and Charlotte; the other two involve a deleted subplot featuring Larry Miller as a client. Both are unnecessary but feature some nice moments from the cast.

A short gallery of production stills plays in slideshow fashion (0:52).

The film's spoiler-heavy trailer (1:50) rounds out the set.

Final Thoughts

Despite making a splash at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, "The Last Word" failed to gain theatrical distribution, and now arrives on shelves as a direct-to-video misstep for its stars. The performances are strong enough to warrant a quick glance (in a hint of irony, a piece of dialogue in the film has Evan detail a screenplay that's weak and too dependent on the strengths of the cast), but you'll want to fast forward through the Evan-Charlotte romance. Rent It.
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