DVD Review: The Last Word (2008)

Having Its Final Say
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Fond of quotations such as dismissing his chosen career with the Henry Miller line, “writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness,” Evan Merck (American Beauty, Ghost Rider, and P2 star Wes Bentley) tells the free-spirited Charlotte (Age of Innocence, Girl Interrupted and Little Women two-time Oscar nominee Winona Ryder) that he likes citing others because it beats having his own thoughts.

It’s this confession that makes his real vocation—which he hides from his prospective and relentless new girlfriend—of penning poetic and poignant suicide notes for strangers seem far more distressing as the young man who admits to a childhood so dysfunctional it was the subject of a Susan Lucci starring TV movie of the week would rather spend his time getting into the mentally unstable heads of his clients than deal with the contents of his own.

Running an L.A. based website that shares the same name as former cameraman turned writer/director Geoff Haley’s debut film which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival—Bentley’s Evan treats his freelance writing position with an odd sense of cool detachment, regularly meeting the clients who contact him via e-mail at a local coffee shop to begin the month long process that involves their keeping a journal of any thoughts they may have before as he says, he’ll take their ideas and make them sing.

Although most writers crave a byline and credit, Evan is all too happy to remain anonymous as one final piece he wrote earned a client a posthumous Whitman Award for Poetry and he’s also seen his writing published in prestigious magazines. Constantly critiquing himself to the point that he clips any obituary notices he does find to lock up in his client files and attend the funeral with a pen and pad to evaluate whether or not his words sounded overly pretentious—it’s at the funeral of a recent client that he first catches the eye of the deceased man’s beautiful, estranged sister Charlotte.

Faster than you can say Harold and Maude meets Garden State-- the overly eager Charlotte begins actively pursuing Evan, looking up the phone number he assumed was unlisted and proving that she isn’t attracted to him simply out of a sense of loss to her brother (since Evan poses right from the start as an old college friend) by seducing him on a Los Angeles rooftop within easy viewing distance of anyone in a nearby office building.

In a spirited turn that finds Ryder back in her darkly comic early Tim Burton roots with movies like Edward Scissorhands, the cult classic Heathers, and her more recent daring turns in the uneven but amusing film The Ten and the underrated The Darwin Awards that relished in its sense of macabre comedy—she makes the most out of a role that’s a bit hard to get a handle on.

This is far more apparent considering initially the admittedly flawed premise that begs the question of wondering how clients would even think to find the website and why a reporter or the authorities hadn’t gotten involved. However, pushing that aside to suspend our disbelief enough anyway because of our talented filmmaker’s confidence in his material that hooks us, honestly we’re never quite sure why Charlotte would find Evan so intriguing.

Of course,Bentley is an undeniably gifted performer whose work in American Beauty I naturally assumed would springboard him onto a Jake Gyllenhaal or Tobey Maguire like career and it’s intriguing to learn that with Haley, he’s reunited with a crew member from that breakout performance (since Haley was a camera operator on Sam Mendes’ film). Yet unfortunately as far as Evan is concerned, it’s an under-written role that makes everyone else immediately stand out in comparison with the man’s blandness as Evan mostly gives off a contemplative but (understandably given how he pays the bills) joyless and near-zombie like existence.

And while Evan doesn’t have enough of a natural spark or obvious personality that seems to authentically generate the interest of Charlotte unless she’s just turned on by the challenge--we're far more intrigued by his immediate bond with his newest client, Abel.

In a movie-star making comeback role, Ray Romano's work as Abel is easily the strongest and most fascinating turn in the film as you’ll never look at the sitcom star of Everybody Loves Raymond the same way again. A blunt, bitter, angry composer of Silicon Valley “hold music” cribbed from Mozart in the hopes that by the time consumers have listened to the classical compositions they’ve gotten smart enough to solve their own technical support questions-- Romano's Abel completely reinvigorates the movie as soon as he becomes just as intrigued as Charlotte is by Evan's introverted, quiet, near-recluse.

Bonding over odd activities and conversations as Abel struggles to journal or give Evan much of an idea of the kind of note he’d like constructed for his demise—soon the two become unexpectedly tight, helping further the filmmaker’s goal to tell a story “about people desperate to make a connection in the most bizarre of ways,” as he told indieWIRE.

Thus, despite the easily winning charms and inevitable complexity that Ryder brings to her unusual role that evolves as the film predictably must reconcile the facts wherein she discovers just who Evan really is and what he does for a living—in the end, the one major revelation about the film is ultimately Ray Romano. For, similar to other comedians like Robin Williams, we realize that he has a curious capacity to play extremely dark at the drop of a hat.

Whether it’s in gleefully getting a psychological release in scaring babies into tears by making horrifying faces when their mothers’ backs are turned or wistfully proclaiming he’d love to buy a cliff for people to throw off the unreliable, broken "shit" that’s annoying them in order to give them closure (whether it’s a fax machine or printer)—essentially, Abel’s story is the most original and compelling one in the impressive, brave, but ultimately uneven work from gifted newcomer Haley.

Sharing with indieWIRE that his earliest loves as a child “were music and film,” we're quick to ascertain that he's deftly woven them together beautifully in this-- his first feature—fittingly conceived in script form “between camera set-ups,” while working on HBO’s Six Feet Under created by American Beauty’s screenwriter Alan Ball.

And while admittedly, it’s not the type of “romantic comedy” one normally sees at the multiplex and the proclamation that it is one on the date-movie friendly box may mislead couples into thinking it’s a light and airy work, despite the fact that we’re not entirely sure we understand or even care that much for our main character, Evan—there’s an awful lot to admire in the surprisingly life-affirming film about the importance of friendship.

Moreover, it’s one that treats viewers to a well-earned and incredibly satisfying conclusion for all the parties involved, further illustrating Haley’s respect for the story he wants to tell and the characters of whom he’s grown incredibly fond.