Saturday, January 17, 2009

Last Chance Harvey (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Joel Hopkins


When you think of that great crop of method actors that came out during the late 60's and early 70's, our minds directly go to Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and occasionally we think of Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman's name doesn't automatically roll off the tongue the way those other names would, perhaps because his love for whimsy has separated him from the cut-throat characters by the other characters listed above. There is nothing truly rebellious about Dustin Hoffman, and some people think that makes him less edgy, when the truth is he's probably more versatile than any actor since Cary Grant.

So we have Last Chance Harvey, which uses Hoffman in an apparently simple role, but brings out some of the best from him in decades. In Harvey, Hoffman plays Harvey Shine, a commercial jingle writer who is standing on his last legs with his job. He has to fly to London in order to be at his daughter's wedding, but promises to come right back in order to close a deal for a client. When he gets to London, he feels greatly alienated by his daughter and ex-wife, finds out that his daughter would rather have her step-father give her away at the ceremony, and soon after hears that he's being let go from his job.

Meanwhile, we have Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), an airline surveyor who's life is constantly interrupted by her meddling, lonely mother and friends always trying to fix her up with single men. Kate's mother sees her being single, almost as a condition, and worries greatly about her when she sees men. On top of that, Kate herself has become increasingly frustrated with her lack of luck with men and life. She finds it harder and harder to meet men, or even talk to them, and much rather succumb to a life of disappointment.

Disparaged at the wedding ceremony, Harvey cuts out early to try and catch his plane. Bumper-to-bumper traffic causes him to miss his plane, and he's forced to stay in London until the next morning. He goes to the bar, hoping to drink away his problems, and finds Kate looking to do the same thing. At first they are slightly contemptuous toward each other, but once they realize that they're both going through the same emotional hardship, a bond is formed. Harvey walks Kate to her class, they stroll through London discussing various things, and Harvey even invites Kate to join him at the wedding reception. Seemingly downtrodden earlier in the day, Harvey now finds an opportunity to replenish everything that he's been missing in life.

There is nothing in Joel Hopkins' script that is unpredictable, and the characters never take a step outside of the usual romantic dramedy guidebook. But watching this movie, I was totally entranced by the work of Hoffman and Thompson, that nothing could have erred it. Surprise is certainly the most overrated aspects of good films--only a film that is thematically lackluster should have to depend on surprise in order to be entertaining, and this film is anything but stilted in its themes.

Certainly this film could have been a real clunker if any other two actors had been chosen. I'm sure a studio head would have much rather made a film in America with George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer ("It would be a One Fine Day reunion!"). Certainly, actors like Clooney and Pfeiffer are more beautiful, but there is so much more to be said in Hoffman's or Thompson's face. There are stories to be told in those faces, and those stories go far beyond "I'm attractive". Not that Hoffman and Thompson are ugly, mind you, just that they know how to play subjugated using only their cheekbones, and that is not always very pretty.

Hoffman is really in his element here, with his best work since 1997's Wag The Dog. Playing a man who is simply never the star of the room, Hoffman does not reject Harvey's character detractions, but is full-on with charm and humor. Playing alongside fellow Oscar-winner, Thompson, the two create a wonderful chemistry, despite over a twenty-year age differance. It sometimes hard to accept that Thompson started off her career as a stand-up comedian, but it makes sense when you figure the vast range she has as an actress. Sure her character here is a little too needy and forseeable, but her warmth makes the perfect companion to Hoffman.

Last Chance Harvey was released around Christmas time, though it wasn't really hitting any major audiences until this weekend. I'm not sure how big its target audience is, and unfortunately middle-aged romance isn't the hot ticket these days (I do realize calling the 71-year-old Hoffman "middle-aged" is stretching it, but I'll give him a bone here). Hit or not, the film is unbelievably effective, if sentimental. Certainly, its a film about groping with loneliness, and how that loneliness only gets harder with age.

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