Monday, May 25, 2009

Last Chance Harvey

Director: Joel Hopkins
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kathy Baker, James Brolin, Liane Balaban, Eileen Atkins, Richard Schiff,
Running Time: 93 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

As an adult drama,
Last Chance Harvey explores a familiar idea and goes where a lot of films have gone before. Some have done it better, but many more have done it worse. It's restrained and subdued, taking its sweet time to get where it needs to go, but doing so in an agreeable, intelligent fashion. One half of the film works better than the other but at least the focus is on real people we care about rather than stock movie characters pigeon-holed into a romantic plot. But the most newsworthy development here is that it features Dustin Hoffman's best performance in ages, reminding us just how much we've missed him as a lead performer.

The temptation will be to just label this as "BEFORE SUNRISE WITH OLD PEOPLE" but to be fair it is a story that transcends age. It's always scary when you're watching a movie and the main character reminds you of yourself. Even scarier is when you realize this character is depicted as a down on his luck loser. So no, this isn't just a movie for the older set but for anyone of any age who has ever experienced failure and disappointment in their lives and hoped someone's out there who knows exactly how they feel. This film tells what happens when they show up.

Harvey Shine (Hoffman) is a commercial jingle composer at the end of his rope. He once had dreams of becoming a Jazz pianist but now he's one strike away from losing his job as he heads to London for his estranged daughter Susan's (Liane Balaban) wedding. When he arrives things only get worse. Hauled up alone in a hotel his daughter and ex-wife (Kathy Baker) barely acknowledge his existence and all his attempts to bring levity to the situation fall flat. The ultimate slap in the face comes when his own daughter tells him that she wants her step-father Brian (James Brolin) to give her away instead of him. Dejected beyond belief, he prepares to head back to New York.

Enter Kate (Emma Thompson) a single London woman dealing with some issues of her own, such as being set up on disastrous blind dates and caring after her widowed and somewhat delusional mother (Eileen Atkins). The movie cuts back and forth between Harvey and Kate's frustrating day before it intertwines at the airport, with their intitial encounter starting off on the wrong foot. Once the ice is broken the two strangers realize they not only have everything in common, but a real emotional connnection. So much so that even the depressed, cynical Harvey has trouble bringing himself to leave London in part because he feels guilty about skipping his daughter's reception, but mostly because of Kate. He just needs a little push and she's there to give it to him.

It's fun to watch the movie as kind of like a quasi-sequel to The Graduate. What would have happened to Benjamin if things didn't work out with Elaine? If all his plans and hopes fell through? He'd probably end up something like Harvey and Hoffman plays him as only Hoffman can. Harvey stutters, stammers, trips, tells bad jokes and says all the wrong things at the wrong times. He's us.

Some actors are hired for their looks or "movie star charisma" but Hoffman has always been an entirely different kind of actor, specializing in characters who reflect how we see ourselves when we're at our worst. Defeated. Nervous. Lacking confidence. And he always digs deep to find honor and dignity buried in that somewhere. While it may seem pathetic to say that of all the screen characaters of 2008 I most relate to a divorced, unemployed sixty-something jingle composer whose life is a wreck, it isn't when Hoffman's playing him. It's been years since he had a role like this well developed and if it were a less crowded year for Best Actor he would have had a legitimate shot at a nomination.

The film and Hoffman make us question whether it was indeed Harvey's family who ostracized him or Harvey who ostracized himself from them with his defeatist attitude. His ex-wife and daughter aren't bad people and even his "replacement," Brian isn't such a bad guy. They're not trying to exclude him, but Harvey's attitude just makes it too easy. He's closed himself off in every way. Almost inevitably, Kate's circumstances aren't nearly as interesting, but at least they're REAL and the actors share a chemistry where you feel the scripts were thrown out and you're just watching Dustin and Emma. Thompson's big scenes come later on, where we have to reevaluate just who this relationship might be scarier for. The film touches on the important point that when you're so comfortable with disappointment and failure the first reaction to someone trying to take that away will be anger.

Anyone searching for dramatic excitement should go elsewhere but if you want an intellectually stimulating film about real people that will have to thinking about life after the credits role, you've come to the right place. If anything, the film could have been longer because despite the slow moving narrative and laid-back approach, the courtship between the characters feels somewhat rushed. I wanted to spend more time with them. I have no problem believing two people could fall in love that quickly, but you really have to make sure the limited time really counts in a huge way or don't make it as limited. It's no Before Sunrise (or even Before Sunset) but despite being safe and formulaic the two strong lead performances cover up the shortcomings in writer/director Joel Hopkins' script.

I had the choice between watching this, Tom Cruise as a one-eyed Nazi or an overweight mall cop on a Segway. The choice was easy. I'm sure I'll watch the other two soon and they'll be barrels of fun but sometimes you're just not in the mood for anything loud or obnoxious, just a modest film about good people who make mistakes and learn from them. It's a rare relief when an adult romance avoids stupid cliches and just trusts the actors to tell the story. Last Chance Harvey doesn't try too hard, which is its most endearing quality.

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