They banter constantly, the cerebral, soft-spoken Evan (Wes Bentley) and his high-energy, somewhat needy girlfriend Charlotte (Winona Ryder). Quiet or subtlety has no place in their relationship or in writer/director Geoff Haley's oddball romantic comedy "The Last Word." But constant chatter is not the same as fully developed storytelling. "Last Word," Haley's debut feature after his 2002 short film "The Parlor," claims a clever idea but never develops into fully drawn storytelling. Evan Merck (Bentley) lives a solitary existence as the writer of other people's suicide notes. His reclusive existence in a drab downtown Los Angeles apartment changes after meeting Charlotte (Ryder), a dead client's sister. An awkward romance blossoms but Evan keeps his job as a suicide note scribe secret. More importantly, he does not want Charlotte to know that her younger brother was a recent client.
"Last Word," premiering in dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival, shows Haley to be a filmmaker with technical polish. Evan's modest apartment is perfectly odd and outdated, just what one would expect for a man slightly out-of-sync with society. Los Angeles plays a major role and the city looks fantastic thanks to cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum's use of colorful locations in Echo Park and Silver Lake. Yet, despite its visual beauty, well-cast leads and fun premise, "Last Word" fails to deliver on sufficient quirkiness, cleverness, romance and most importantly, laughs.
Wes Bentley looks the part of the bookish Evan with a trimmed beard and glasses. His expression is one of constant seriousness. He quotes Walt Whitman. He rides buses to his appointments. He's an oddball one could love if only given a chance. But Bentley suffers most from Haley's underutilized storytelling only because he shows such promise as Evan. He's earnest, affecting, and yet, never given the chance to come alive.
Winona Ryder is energetic and pretty as Charlotte, the type of nutty female character well suited to her pinpoint comic timing. Like Bentley, Ryder is also handcuffed by Haley's script. She never gets the chance to let loose and the film suffers.
Ray Romano enjoys a string of comic gags as Evan's most troublesome client, including an elaborate, explosive joke at the film's finale but his smart aleck spirit fails to salvage the film.
The best scene involves Evan being blackmailed by one of his former clients in order to keep his work secret from Charlotte but many of Haley's jokes are downright clunky - including Charlotte flashing office workers on the rooftop of Evan's apartment building. Evan and Charlotte's unavoidable dramatic confrontation lacks payoff since they never fully bond in the film. Its random moments of sweetness turn into aggravating lulls because "Last Word" simply does not have enough laughs to keep its story afloat. It doesn't have much credible romance either. In fact, on all levels, "Last Word" comes up painfully short. Considering Haley's sly premise, his failure to deliver is doubly disappointing.
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.