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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Review: Last Chance Harvey

* * *

Director: Joel Hopkins
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson

I like Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman. Aside from being wonderful actors, I think that they’re both pleasant screen presences and I would gladly watch either of them in just about anything. In Last Chance Harvey they play two lonely people who manage to find each other, spend a day walking and talking, connect with each other in a way that we suspect neither has connected in some time. It’s all perfectly nice but... that’s about it. It’s a fine film but when the leads are two performers as dynamic as Thompson and Hoffman can be, you’d think it wouldn’t be so bland.

Hoffman is the eponymous Harvey, a Los Angeles musician who makes a living writing jingles. He doesn’t like his job, finding it a demeaning form of making music, but he’s nevertheless desperate to hold on to it when he learns that it’s in jeopardy. He has to go to London for his daughter’s wedding but he’ll cut the trip short in order to be back in time to make a presentation to a client, informed by his boss that this will be his last chance.

Harvey arrives in London with little fanfare. He gets to the hotel thinking that the entire family will be there, only to discover that his ex-wife has rented a house and invited pretty much everyone other than him to stay there. His daughter welcomes him reluctantly and informs him that she’d like her stepfather to give her away at the wedding. Every bit the outsider, Harvey sadly watches the proceedings from afar and then makes his way to the airport, just barely missing his flight. Shortly thereafter he meets Kate (Thompson), with whom he has more in common than he immediately suspects, and they take a walk. After they’ve gotten to know each other a bit she talks him into going to his daughter’s wedding reception and trying to salvage their relationship.

Hoffman and Thompson have a nice, easy chemistry and their characters are similarly well-matched. Harvey and Kate are both people who have been deeply disappointed by life, who have difficulty connecting with others, and who are prone to crankiness. Both are also frustrated artists, Harvey having failed to fulfill his dream of becoming a jazz pianist and Kate aspiring to be a novelist. When they first get to talking and Harvey half-heartedly confesses to being a composer of jingles Kate asks him in a rather direct way if that’s all, which is interesting since she later tells him that she’d like to make a living writing beach reads. I would think that jingles are to music what beach reads are to literature, but I digress. These are two people who believe that they have failed to live up to their potential - though it might perhaps be more accurate to say that their potential doesn't live up to their dreams - and are scared to take a chance just in case this is as good as it will ever get. They step out on the limb for each other and both Hoffman and Thompson get a chance to show off those superior skills that both possess and in the process render effective and touching performances.

We sense that prior to meeting each other, neither had had much fun in a long time and we’d like them to have fun because they seem like nice enough people. The problem with the film is that it’s more interested in plot contrivances than it is in the relationship and so we don’t get to see all that much of Harvey and Kate interacting with each other. There’s also a strange and truncated subplot involving Kate’s mother, who is convinced that her new neighbour is a murderer, that goes nowhere and only serves as a further distraction from the real story, which is Harvey and Kate together.

Last Chance Harvey is a nice, perfectly harmless film but it fails to achieve more than that. It’s wonderful to see Hoffman and Thompson on screen together but the film doesn't really seem to know what to do with them together and spends a lot of time finding ways to keep them apart. Harvey and Kate are interesting and compelling characters and I would have liked to have gotten to know them a bit better.

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