A film review by Craig J. Koban
LAST CHANCE HARVEY
2008, PG-13, 92 mins.
2008, PG-13, 92 mins.
Harvey: Dustin Hoffman / Kate: Emma Thompson / Susan: Liane
Balaban / Brian: James Brolin / Maggie: Eileen Atkins /
Jean: Kathy Baker / Marvin: Richard Schiff
LAST CHANCE HARVEY tells a rudimentary, dime-a-dozen romantic dramedy storyline that is made all the more entertaining and endearing by the performances by the two lead actors. After having to slavishly sit through countless examples of the genre that involved characters that are young and naïve about love and relationships, it’s kind of refreshing to see a film like this that involves gentle-minded, middle-aged people that are finding difficulty finding a soul mate while in the relative autumn of their respective lives.
Perhaps what’s most
attractive about the film is that it gives us a chance to see two of the
most decorated and respective actors of their generations play
off of one another so effectively and without forcing any key emotion to
the point of annoying incredulousness.
The tone of the film is letter-perfect in the way it shows
the slowly simmering and burgeoning friendship and inevitable love between
its two characters. Yes, the
film frequently succumbs to some annoying sitcom level contrivances and
coincidences, but it never overrides the harmony and easy-going chemistry
between the two budding lovers. The
film is sweet without being overly saccharine and it finds the right
dramatic grove throughout.
Dustin Hoffman and Emma
Thompson play the two romantic leads in question, and LAST CHANCE HARVEY
is a perfect example of letting two great talents find their way with
their characters through their serine interplay between one another.
What’s so great about the pair is that, at face value, they are
certainly not the traditional on-screen couple for a rom-com (the film has
a wily time playing off of the physical differences between the two
actors; at times, Thompson hovers over the pocket-sized Hoffman).
What’s even more resonating is that the actors do such a
thankless job of portraying the two lovers as emotionally flawed and
tainted people, frustrated by life for the manner it has kept them bogged
down in a depressing bubble of anxiety.
Whereas the man has given love a chance years ago and failed
miserable (he’s divorced and has a largely estranged relationship with
his family) the woman, on the other extreme, is a figure that has been so
disappointed by attempts at love that she has given herself a self-imposed
exile from meeting other men: she avoids male companionship because the
potential threat of letdown is too much to bare.
Unavoidably, these two wounded souls need each other because
they allow within themselves opportunities the chance to help the other.
Hoffman is especially refined
and wonderfully dialed-down as Harvey, who has the very difficult task of
making us root for a him when he begins the film as a real selfish jerk.
He is a failed jazz pianist that gave up his first love of that
music form to peruse a career writing jingles for TV commercials, which is
certainly not as artistically fulfilling for the man.
Things are not going very well at his job (where advances in
computers and digital tinkering has made this analogue music man all but
obsolete; he’s on his last legs), but his obsessive drives with his job
that he loathes to the core is not the worst of his troubles.
His wife (Kathy Baker) has divorced him years ago and has
re-married a financially successful man (James Brolin).
The two have barely spoken, but what’s really distressing is how
much Harvey has let his dead-end job interfere with his relationship with
his daughter (the beautiful and exquisite Liane Balaban), who has
blossomed into adulthood and is soon to be married…all without Harvey
being much of a fatherly presence.
is to be married in London, so Harvey flies in for a painfully awkward
re-acquaintance with both his daughter and ex-wife, which ultimately leads
to a real shocker for the deadbeat dad: Since he has not been a meaningful fixture in her life for years,
the daughter has decided to ask her step-dad to give her away instead of
Meanwhile, the film
introduces us to Kate, played by Emma Thompson with her characteristic and
sophisticated drollness, which is nicely offset by her tender
vulnerability. She works as
an airline employee in London that spends most of her life working and
tending to the care of her deeply paranoid and bored mother (Eileen
Atkins, decent in a very, very underdeveloped part).
If the monotony of working at Heathrow is not tiresome enough, Kate
feels that she is incapable of having her own life since her mother is
beyond meddlesome (she chronically calls Kate at the most inopportune
times, usually about mundane things), but Kate is such a self-afflicted
social introvert that she uses her mother as an excuse to not meet
people. A blind date that
highlights an introductory scene in the film shows how painfully withdrawn
she is form the idea of meeting and forming a bond with men.
Of course, this is a romantic
dramedy, so the pair do have the obligatory meet-cute, but its almost a
non-happening: They cross
paths very quickly one day at Heathrow while Kate – on the job – is
trying to get Harvey to participate in a survey, to which he rather rudely
dismisses her as a needless pest (this occurs when Harvey first arrives in
London). However, the two do
have another chance meeting, but at a later point when the two have
hit rock bottom: Harvey is
miserable about not giving away his daughter, which leads him to think
that he just may abandon gong to the wedding reception altogether (and on top of
that, he's royally fired by his boss over the phone) whereas Kate just made
it through a terribly uncomfortable blind date the previous night, which
has left he deeply jaded. Harvey
sees this woman and seems drawn to her, maybe because he senses another
despondent person that may understand his own unhappiness.
Things start off shaky between the pair (it sure is hard for the romance to fly when both parties are in such foul moods at first), but Harvey slowly gets through to Kate with his frankness about his own issues and failures. The initial conversations take the form of an apology from Harvey (he was rude to her, don’t forget, on their first meeting), and he tries desperately to strike up a meaningful conversation with her. Yet, her very guarded personality subsides when they both seem to naturally slip into sincere conversations, which is the film’s real pleasure. The small little wonder LAST CHANCE HARVEY is how the film nurtures our interest in wanting these two to get together without forcing it down our throats: There is not an instant “love at first sight” bond between Kate and Harvey; rather; they strike up a tentative friendship first that needs to grow beyond it to become something more. This is made all-the more natural by the fact that Hoffman and Thompson nail their dialogue exchanges with just the right tact, modulation, and warmth
They do bond, though; at
least as much as two complete strangers do when they first meet.
Harvey becomes the most smitten as he sees the possibilities of a
relationship with Kate, while she becomes intrigued by Harvey and is
drawn by his youthful spunk, charisma, and willingness to unveil to her
his deeply vented pains. Maybe
the attraction is that she find his pain attractive, which allows
her to come out from her own reclusiveness.
Either way, these are two lonely, downtrodden personas that do
forge a believable chemistry and attraction to one another.
One thing acts as catalyst to their budding love, and that his
when Harvey reveals that he may skip his daughter’s wedding reception,
seeing as the embarrassment of not being able to give her away makes him
feel unwanted. Kate jumps at
this opportunity by pleading with him that he must go, but he resists.
She eventually wears down his defensives, and Harvey does decide to
go, but only is she will be his date.
Of course…she goes.
This leads to the film’s
single most memorable and heart-rending scene.
Kate and Harvey arrive at the reception, are seated, and the MC
tells the crowd that the Bride’s "father" will now be giving a toast…but
not Harvey…he is refereeing to her step-dad.
Just as the man is about to speak, Harvey decides to make an
impassioned stand for himself – largely because of the support of his
newfound friend – and politely interrupts: “Excuse me, but I am the
girl’s father,” he pitifully tells the crowd. The stepfather graciously relents and Harvey then gives a
toast that manages to encapsulate all of his dire failures as a father and
husband while simultaneously commending his daughter for having the will
and inner fortitude to mature into a woman that has transcended all of his
past mistakes. Watching
Hoffman reveal these raw feelings of inadequacy as a limited figure in
his daughter’s life – in front of hundreds – becomes incredibly
poignant mostly because Hoffman is so natural, unpretentious, and genuine
with his delivery. This scene
is proof-positive as to how a great actor can make material that
would otherwise be overly sentimental and syrupy in a lesser performer's
hands: it’s a textbook thespian exercise in restraint, poise, and
Actually, those words aptly describe the whole tone of LAST CHANCE HARVEY. The film itself does not reinvent the wheel (a cursory look at it would easily and simplistically reveal it to be a BEFORE SUNRISE for old people). Actually, one of the issues with the film is that it gets sidetracked with a few two many distracting subplots when it should have just focused squarely on the two leads (as Linklater’s film did so flawlessly). The scenes involving Kate's mother – which has her progressively feeling that her Polish neighbor is a homicidal maniac – never pay off in any meaningful way, nor does its weak attempts at light comedy do the film justice. I also had one other real problem with a terribly telegraphed moment where – after Kate and Harvey agree to have one last meeting in London before he heads back home – you know…you just know…that something will happen that will force Harvey to not show up for the meeting, leaving the grief-stricken and depressed Kate re-evaluating her love for him. I don’t like how "The Idiot Plot Syndrome" crept it’s way into an otherwise effective film: It’s funny, but for two characters that have cell phones dominating their lives so much, you’d think that they would exchange phone numbers just in case one would be late or could not make the important date.
Despite the film’s obviousness with humdrum, third act romantic clichés and other deficiencies mentioned that stunt the the dramatic payoff of the tender romance between the characters, LAST CHANCE HARVEY largely succeeds because of the presence of Hoffman and Thompson. The actors allow their unconventional romantic characters to elevate themselves above plot contrivances with their sublime and fairly genuine performances in which they understand that less is frequently more. It’s a film that shows the touching bond that two chronic loners have with one another through shared misery, and the way Hoffman and Thompson so naturally sell this bond makes the film work. Too often these types of movies feel rushed and aberrant, giving us obnoxiously warmed-over characters that we have difficulty rooting on towards love. In LAST CHANCE HARVEY’s case, I liked the film’s preciseness, gracefulness, and maturity with showing two believably grow to understand their foibles and move past them towards a greater acceptance and connection. And with Thompson and Hoffman playing the couple, this ain’t a hard sell.