In London, an unlikely romance
by Jason Blair
LAST CHANCE HARVEY: Written and directed by Joel Hopkins. Cinematography, John de Borman. Music, Dickon Hinchliffe. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Eileen Aikens, Kathy Baker, James Brolin and Liane Balaban. Overture Films, 2008. PG-13. 92 minutes.
In a film entitled Last Chance Harvey, you’d expect Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) to be aware of rejection, but you’re hardly prepared for how intimate the two have become. Harvey, a pianist who composes jingles for commercials, is arranging to attend his daughter’s wedding in London. As he disembarks, he’s awash in hot and cold running disappointment: Whether at work, on the plane or at his daughter’s rehearsal dinner, Harvey is overlooked, ignored and in general a walking afterthought. To ensure nobody misses the point, Harvey gets the news that breaks his heart: His daughter Susan (Liane Balaban) has chosen her stepfather, not Harvey, to give her away during the ceremony. Poor Harvey: Even his blood isn’t good enough, or thick enough, for his family.
|Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman in Last Chance Harvey|
Initially, writer/director Joel Hopkins (Jump Tomorrow) cuts earnestly between Harvey and Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), a Londoner with a deeply rutted comfort zone. Kate, a poll-taker at Heathrow, spends her days taking her mum’s paranoid phone calls; what’s more, she’s just suffered the recent setback of watching her blind date veer off with a younger woman. Even for a romantic comedy, the early scenes in Last Chance Harvey creak audibly, straining credibility through one hurt after another. Would Kate, who’s still youngish, really be tipping into spinsterhood so soon? Just when you think it’s too much, a reeling Harvey, having missed his return flight to New York, meets Kate over lunch in an airport lounge. And the film, quite literally, takes off.
Separately, Kate and Harvey tend to stop conversations dead. Together, they strike up a fidgety conversation in which Harvey tries to draw out a circumspect Kate. The scene is charming, sweet and utterly convincing. Soon, Harvey’s walking Kate along the Thames, at which point Last Chance Harvey is at its breezy, effortless best. If you’ve ever tried valiantly to convince someone to take a chance on you, you’ll delight in Harvey’s meet-cute methods. When Kate teeters, you feel her tension. Thompson and Hoffman take what should be mildly interesting material and infuse it with nuance and suffering and hope. Both were nominated for Golden Globes — Thompson ran into the Kate Winslet juggernaut — and both should be considered for Academy Awards.
Finding a light touch, Hopkins unapologetically plays his hand: Harvey turns out to be an old-fashioned romantic comedy that pivots on not one but two misunderstandings. The first one is easily fixed. Too easily, in fact: Kate, having convinced Harvey to return to Susan’s wedding reception (which he’d skipped), in fact accompanies Harvey back to the reception, during which Kate panics and attempts to flee. The second misunderstanding, which echoes An Affair to Remember, is a deeper cut that won’t heal so easily. Unabashedly romantic, with throwback themes — forgiveness, regret, the need to fit in — Last Chance Harvey isn’t for everyone. The material is modest, even flat at the outset, but it’s brought fully awake by Hoffman and Thompson, two fine actors in equally fine form. The film doesn’t work if you expect your romance in a straight line. Or if you expect your laughs to be enormous. The humor and the setbacks are small in Last Chance Harvey, accumulating — like life itself — slowly, then all at once.