For more than half a century, Shirley MacLaine's unsinkable spirit has kept her working; now it's keeping this indie afloat. In a too-easy script from Stuart Ross Fink, MacLaine's retired businesswoman Harriet Lawler finds herself in a control freak's quandary: How can she preside over her own obituary if she'll be dead? Harriet -- who's already blithely suicidal -- hires a local writer, Anne (Amanda Seyfried), to pen her obit, stat. But Harriet's burned so many bridges that Anne finds the task impossible -- nobody will talk to her! -- and delivers her new boss an icy, succinct one-paragraph bio. Anne's supposed to be a great writer, but if she can't pull off massaging the obit of a pioneering ad executive, she needs a new job or a new attitude. The story's set up to give Anne both. Wouldn't you know that, in helping Harriet connect with the people and the passions that make a life worth commemorating, Anne realizes it's time to take some chances?
This premise, if convenient, still proves cute. Throughout the story, Harriet can't help but espouse her truths on every subject that comes to her: how hedges should be trimmed, how boring the radio is today. Director Mark Pellington shoots all this with handheld cameras, utilizing a shallow and central focus that blurs everything not in a small hot spot in the screen's middle. The effect is one of intensity, so this cinematography is at tonal odds with the story's lighter moments, but it does lend gravity to the scenes poking at Harriett's blinkered privilege, as when Harriet gives a talk to at-risk African-American preteens and tells them to brush aside their problems and take more positive risks.