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By Jeremy Mathews | January 18, 2008

There aren’t many movies about people who write other people’s suicide letters for a living. “The Last Word” may have the market cornered. So it’s a shame that the romantic comedy flounders so deeply in uninspired tedium when it could have taken the concept in all kinds of more interesting directions.

Wes Bentley stars as the writer, an awkward, self-conscious fellow whose eyes dart in all directions other than that of the people he converses with. Writer/director Geoffrey Haley succeeds in capturing the muted mood of its character, but fails to adequately explore his personality.

Winona Ryder plays the sister of one of his now-deceased clients. She sees him at the funeral, asks him his name, then calls him up for a date. Next thing you know, she strips naked on a rooftop for him. There is no chemistry or tension before this display of affection, and no signs of connection after it. The romance, and all the conflict that comes with it, feels perfunctory—as if it were only written so as not to waste such a clever idea.

Of course, Bentley doesn’t want his lover to know that he wrote her brother’s suicide note, so he doesn’t tell her how he knew her brother or about his day job. You can tell this relationship will go well. Haley generates more and more frustration by putting Bentley’s character into situations in which his only way out is to tell the truth, but not letting him tell it. The plot developments make it more and more obvious that our hero must come clean, yet the dweeb continues to delay his confession. While Haley may be trying to portray a man who can’t tell the truth, there is a threshold for the amount of time an audience can put up with this kind of bullshit, and “The Last Word” surpasses it twice over.

The main bright spot comes in the unexpected form of Ray Romano, who plays one of the suicidal clients. The depressed man forges a friendship with the introverted writer, and the two find meaning within one another. But when a film only shines while deviating from its main plot, it’s time to write a new film.

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