January 22, 2009

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Last Chance Harvey (PG-13)
A sad sack Dustin Hoffman befriends a lonely Emma Thompson in the quiet love story Last Chance Harvey.

Harvey Shine (Hoffman) is having a bad couple of days. After traveling to London for his daughter Susan’s (Liane Balaban) wedding, he finds out he’s the only one in the family staying in a sterile hotel (his daughter and the rest of the party are in a rented house) and then Susan tells him she wants her stepfather (James Brolin) to give her away. Dejected, he leaves the ceremony right after the “I now pronounce you” part and heads to the airport, where he misses his flight back to New York. He calls his boss to explain why he’ll be at an important meeting late, only to be fired. He goes to the airport lounge to quickly down several drinks, which is where he meets Kate (Thompson).

Kate, who works at the airport, has her own problems. She is taking care of her on-the-mend mother Maggie (Eileen Atkins), who, when she isn’t worrying about Kate’s singleness, spends her time suspiciously watching the Polish (she thinks) neighbor who she suspects, for no good reason, is some kind of serial killer. Maggie frantically and frequently calls Kate to tell her of his doings. Kate finds this particularly annoying when she is out on a blind date. At first, things between her and the handsome (slightly younger, we’re told) man go well but then he runs into friends and we can see her, perhaps out of shyness or disappointment, hold herself a bit apart from them, eventually leaving. When Kate meets Harvey she isn’t immediately charmed but his pushiness breaks through her reticence and soon these new acquaintances find themselves spending the day together.

There is something at times grating about Hoffman’s sad-eyed Dustin-Hoffman-shtick. It’s like the quiet, dramatic cousin to Robin William’s zany comedy mode. Quiet but with the same indefinable quality that makes you want to fast forward through it. Hoffman, with his droopy expressions and his mannered line delivery, isn’t this way in every moment but it’s enough that it would threaten to sink another movie. A movie that wasn’t buoyed by the delightful performance of Emma Thompson.

Even though Thompson (who according to IMDB turns 50 this year) and Hoffman (who is 71) are separated by decades, she’s infinitely more appropriate than the early-40s-aged actress that I’ll bet would have otherwise got the job. Thompson seems like a mature grown-up woman — something you don’t always get to see in the movies (a-hem, Bride Wars).To see such a character cautiously, warily approach the idea of romance is delightful. Just watching her face gives you the sense you’re watching a real person, not actress Emma Thompson playing a real person (which is closer to the effect of Hoffman’s performance). For every unsubtle “here’s what I’m doing” moment with Hoffman, we’re soothed and rewarded with some completely natural gesture or look from Thompson. I’d watch the movie with her starring opposite anyone else, but without her the movie wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying.

L ast Chance Harvey floats along for its first two thirds before crashing into romance-movie conventions in its final act. That I didn’t really mind I credit completely to the good work of Thompson. B

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Written and directed by Joel Hopkins, Last Chance Harvey is an hour and 39 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Overture Films.