The Last Word
Image // Unrated // $35.98 // April 21, 2009
Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 9, 2009
E - M A I L
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or not, if you're gonna try to carve out a living in L.A., you have to pay the rent somehow. Evan (Wes Bentley) has stumbled onto a pretty comfortable niche: penning artful suicide notes for his soon-to-be-recently-deceased clients. C'mon, it's Tinseltown, and it's never too late to make a last impression. Let's ballpark it around...oh, 70% of Evan's clients using his extensive research process as therapy, going on from there to live happy, productive lives.

Matt is...well, was part of that other 30%. He'd long since been estranged from his sister Charlotte (Winona Ryder), and when she spots Evan skulking around the funeral, she sees this as a chance to get to know her brother secondhand. Evan pretends to have been a college tutor of Matty's at Cornell, and even though he's more likely to drop a Dostoyevsky quote than bust a move while Charlotte is more the Manic Pixie Dream Girl type, you know how this song goes. Charlotte's hopelessly intrigued by Evan and eventually coaxes him out of his shell, blissfully unaware that the quiet writer with glasses and perpetual three-day scruff she's snuggling up to was kinda/sorta party to her brother's death. Evan's cagey about what sort of writing he does, exactly, but just 'cause he has a girlfriend for the first time in his life doesn't mean he can shutter his business. His current client is Abel (Ray Romano), a once-promising composer who's since settled into a life recording hold music for the Silicon Valley set. Fumbling through life as underappreciated artists, the two of them strike an unusual sort of friendship too. This is a movie, though, so sooner or later, Evan's professional and chipperly romantic lives are going to plow into each other head-on...

That mix of death
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and misdirected creativity, a left-of-center romance, hopelessly bored artists, a really deft blend of dark comedy and drama: it's like Harold and Maude jabbed in the corotid artery with a syringe full of modern indie-quirk. The Last Word is a hell of a calling card for first-time writer/director Geoffrey Haley, and even if his debut isn't perfect, this strong first showing makes it pretty clear that his is a name to keep an eye out for down the road. That runthrough a plot a paragraph up may make it sound as if Evan is just another listlessly dull loner who needs a wide-eyed Tinkerbell type to slather his routine in pixie dust, but Wes Bentley and Winona Ryder infuse their performances with enough personality to avoid settling too deeply into cliché. Evan slowly and subtly lets his guard down around Charlotte, with the rigidly formal sentence structure and centuries-old literary quotes relaxing enough to even make way for a few four-letter words. It's never really clear what it is about Evan that so hopelessly fascinates Chaz, but he doesn't seem to get it either, and that's more interesting than the movie just taking it for granted. Evan's bland and joyless by design, but I think that's the point: he's a blank slate for the emotionally ravaged characters around them to grab a piece of chalk and scribble whatever they want on him. Ray Romano is really the standout here, though, striking the perfect middle ground between a dramatic role and unrelentingly dry sarcasm. "Chicks love puppies, man. I'm telling you, they're like heroin with fur."

It's the notes scribbled in the margins throughout The Last Word that really grabbed me: a priest doing vocal exercises shortly before a funeral service, the hysterically over-the-top Lifetime Original Movie about Evan's trainwreck of a childhood that's left blaring in the background, a rant about a vicious, empty cycle revolving around masturbation and peanut butter... Even though The Last Word marks the first time Geoffrey Haley has worn the hats of writer and director, he's a seasoned hand in Hollywood as a camera operator, and his sharp visual eye makes for a debut that looks far more accomplished than usual for a freshman outing. Haley's dialogue sparkles nearly as brightly as his photography too. Sometimes he does overindulge the quirkiness, though, feeling shoehorned in rather than effortlessly natural. As marvelous a job as Haley does for so much of the movie melding traditional setpieces with his own distinctive voice, the final stretch does settle disappointingly into convention, although at least that's redeemed by a wholly deserved yet somewhat unexpected ending. That's okay, though. Sharply written, well-acted, and hinting at a pretty incredible career ahead for Geoffrey Haley, the rest of The Last Word -- a story about detachment and fumbling for some sort of human connection -- is more than strong enough to make up for its missteps. Recommended.

The Last Word looks more like something I'd catch on one of the high-def channels on cable than a shiny, newly-minted Blu-ray disc. There's never any doubt that this is HD, but the quality can be pretty uneven, and it's never all that startling even at its best. Softness and drab contrast creep into several of the exterior scenes, particularly the bits with Evan against the L.A. skyline and his stroll with Abel down a suburban sidewalk. The faintly coarse texture of the film grain looks smoothened out in a few scattered stretches as well. Clarity and detail are fine but unexceptional, and there's not all that much in the way of depth or dimensionality either. The scope image is also marred by some very light speckling, and although it's far too tiny and infrequent to even come close to being distracting, it's still odd to see that sort of thing in a day-and-date release. I spotted some light ringing around some edges as well. On the other hand, its colors are wonderfully bright and vibrant. Still, even for a lower budget indie, The Last Word really doesn't rank any higher than okay on Blu-ray.

The Last Word is saddled with a pretty low bitrate, but the AVC encode doesn't show any signs of strain even with the movie crammed down to 14 gigs and change. This Blu-ray disc is letterboxed to preserve the film's original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Despite the "1080i" label on the flipside of the case, this is indeed a 1080p24 disc.

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The 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack nuzzled up next to The Last Word sounds a lot better than I would've waltzed in expecting. Considering the sort of movie this is, it kind of goes without saying that the sound design is anchored around its dialogue, and it's rendered cleanly and clearly in the center channel. The mix is more spry than average for an indie slice of quirk, reinforcing the music with a meaty low-end, and The Last Word even finds a way to squeeze in a pretty massive explosion to boot. It's brimming with atmosphere too, from the whir of helicopters of greatly varying sizes, silverware clinking in a couple of diners, and the roar of traffic on I-10. I'm particularly impressed by the distinctness and clarity of the instrumentation in the music scattered throughout The Last Word. Smoldering? Incendiary? Nah, not so much, but The Last Word's lossless soundtrack is definitely a notch or two above average for this sort of movie.

A Dolby Digital 5.1 track has also been tacked on alongside subtitle streams in English (SDH) and Spanish.

The extras are disappointingly sparse this time around. The only highlight is a 9 minute reel of deleted scenes, presented in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen. Charlotte gets fleshed out a bit more, including what led up to her once again setting up shop in Los Angeles, and Larry Miller also pops up as an aggressively quirky client of Evan's. The only other extras are a high-res still gallery with thirteen shots and a standard definition trailer.

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The Final Word
In his first time out as a writer/director, Geoffrey Haley grabs a few stock plot points off the shelf -- y'know, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the overstarched loner with a secret, dreams left depressingly unfulfilled -- and weaves them into a quirky and cacklingly dark comedy with a punchy dramatic undercurrent. Sure, The Last Word makes a few missteps along the way, but I really dug it overall. This Blu-ray disc is a little too unexceptional to justify its sticker price, but fans of these sorts of offbeat indie dramedies ought to find The Last Word worth picking up as a rental or grabbing once the price eases back a bit. Recommended.

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