A film review by Craig J. Koban


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

Written and directed by Joel Hopkins.

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.  She 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 Harvey.  Ouch. 

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 delicacy. 

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. 

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