Last Chance Harvey

January, 2009, Comedy

Directed by:Joel Hopkins

Starring:Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kathy Baker, and James Brolin

Frothy as an old-fashioned ice cream soda and as equally substantive, this romantic comedy works its charms as discretely as a one-ply cashmere cardigan wards off an afternoon chill; with understated grace and perfect fit. That thirty-something British writer/director Joel Hopkins could put two older and well-established actors through their paces so effectively in this quietly observant study of sexual attraction between characters in the late afternoon of their lives bodes well for his career - - and for the audiences who’ll get to see his future efforts. With its trim 92 minute running time, this movie leaves you wanting more even as it serves up just enough…

Dustin Hoffman plays Harvey Shine, a failed jazz pianist turned commercial jingle writer who flies to London in the middle of a crucial business negotiation in order to attend the marriage of his daughter Susan. She’s been raised by Jean, Harvey’s ex, and current her husband Brian (James Brolin, whose tanned face and aimless smile threaten to make him Hollywood’s next George Hamilton). Wearing the wrong suit and a nervous smile, Harvey learns at the rehearsal dinner that Susan’s decided to ask Brian to walk her down the aisle. Angry and dejected, Harvey attends the wedding the next morning, but begs off from the evening’s planned reception and heads for Heathrow, only to miss his flight and learn from his boss that his services are no longer needed. Nursing a large dose of Johnny Walker Black Label in an airport bar, Harvey strikes up a conversation with Kate Walker (Emma Thompson) an unmarried airline employee “of a certain age” about to take her lunch break. When she crisply scuttles his attempts at flirtatious conversation, he asks her to dine with him, and then insists on escorting her to an afternoon writing class she’s taking.

Kate, long unsuccessful in matters of the heart, is as warily surprised  of Harvey’s interest is she is appalled when she learns he’s decided not to attend Susan’s reception despite the fact that he’s no longer required back in New York. In response, he invites her to attend with him as his date; thus begins the most tentative of romantic encounters, complicated by Harvey’s recurrent arterial arrhythmia and Jean’s aging mother Maggie, (played with pitch-perfect asperity by the wonderful Eileen Atkins) who assiduously stalks her daughter by cell-phone.

He’s enchanting but wears his lousy personal and business track record like military combat ribbons; she’s flattered by his obsessive attention but scarred by so many past rejections she’s given up on the notion that her life can accommodate anything more than work, reading and endless attention to her mother’s needs. But his little-boy smile is so irresistible… 

Hoffman’s career is long and impressive; (can it really be more than 40 years since he was seduced by Anne Bancroft in The Graduate?) a pair of Oscars, 43 other wins and two dozen more nominations all testify to his skills at commanding an audience’s attention. But of late there’s been a tendency to overact, chewing scenery when it’s precisely the wrong thing to do and arguing with his directors in the bargain. There’s none of that here; Hopkins keeps a tight rein on his star and wisely gives him less to say than to do - - first with appropriate silences in his varied conversations, then with both his expressive, soulful eyes and those smiles which careen from confident to self-conscious to deprecating to manic at the speed of light. Harry may be a B-list player, but he’s his own man and in his exchanges with daughter, step-father and the self-effacing, occasionally cranky Kate alike, Hoffman injects his lines with just the right amounts of injured pride, pain and candor. When Kate asks him where their relationship is going, Harvey pauses and with a smile that reeks of conspiracy replies “I have absolutely no idea”. She doesn’t believe him anymore than the audience does, but it’s such a lovely piece of seduction, you can’t blame Kate for promptly taking off her shoes in the street so she’ll be at eye level with the shorter, older man with a heart problem with whom she’s about to bed down. Hoffman’s been gifted with a starring role uniquely tailored to his many talents and he makes the most of it; how many 72 year-old actors get the opportunity to play romantic leads…and have Hoffman’s ability to do so with such appealing vulnerability?

If Hoffman’s Harvey is bewilderingly yet credibly charming, Emma Thompson’s Kate is the epitome of intellectually appealing femininity. Is there an actress north of 50 working today, (Helen Mirren excepted) who can match Thompson’s arch wit, engaging personality, intellectual acuity and handsome good looks? Like her co-star, Thompson also owns a pair of Oscars-one for acting (Howard’s End) the other for screen writing (Sense & Sensibility). If today’s movies were made for more mature audiences instead of for those under the age of 20 or so, Ms. Thompson would be the secret heart-throb of males who admire a little grey matter with their pulchritude. Her Kate is wholesome, genuine and heartbreakingly lonely but without a trace of self pity. She matches Harvey’s one-liners stroke for stroke and her expression when dancing with him at his daughter’s reception can best be described as incandescent. In short, Emma Thompson’s the real deal and it’s wonderful to see her in a role worthy of her talents and so expressive of them.

Last Chance Harvey garnered Golden Globe nominations recently for both Hoffman and Thompson but this material’s too light to be taken seriously by those who are seeking great art or honoring the film-going tastes of those who weren’t even alive when Bill Clinton was first elected president. But for anyone eager for an hour and a half of delicious, literate escapism, it’s my bet this deftly unassuming romantic comedy will land on more than one “guilty pleasures of 2009” list. It certainly will be on mine.

The Verdict? Go watch two pros light up the big screen.



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