Friday, January 16, 2009

Last Chance Harvey: No chance at all

Last Chance Harvey (2008) • View trailer for Last Chance Harvey
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and quite stupidly, for brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.16.09
Buy DVD: Last Chance Harvey • Buy Blu-Ray: Last Chance Harvey [Blu-ray]

This is roughly half a movie … and not a very satisfying one, at that.

Actually, Last Chance Harvey feels more like a work in progress: an intimate stage play still being shaped, and clearly missing continuity and closure.
Having been persuaded by new friend Kate (Emma Thompson) to attend the
reception that follows his daughter's wedding — despite not being allowed to
walk her down the aisle — the nervous and far too unassuming Harvey (Dustin
Hoffman) wonders how to handle the fact that his ex-wife's new husband keeps
hogging the microphone.

Stars Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson give it their all, but writer/director Joel Hopkins' script is insubstantial, predictable, contrived, mawkishly sentimental and guilty of dramatic theft; one plot point is "borrowed," in all relevant ways, from 1957's An Affair to Remember (perhaps best remembered these days for the way it's referenced in Sleepless in Seattle).

Mostly, though, the story here just isn't very interesting. Watching Hoffman and Thompson interact as lonely singles is engaging; neither is capable of a bad performance, and their acting nuances — Hoffman's too-quick, nervous smile; Thompson's wary eyes, which bespeak repeated disappointment — certainly establish engaging characters capable of holding our attention.

But this film gives them very little to do, and the script lacks any of the tension or dramatic arcs that normally would hold our attention. The result, particularly in the wake of a frustratingly abrupt conclusion, looks more like an acting exercise: something disconnected from actual narrative, and existing solely as a classroom experience.

New York-based professional musician Harvey Shine (Hoffman) is on the verge of losing his dead-end job as a composer of TV commercial jingles; too much of what used to be craft has been farmed out to computer-based scores, and our hero's boss (Richard Schiff) warns that his current pending gig could be the last one.

Obviously unsettled, Harvey nonetheless hops a plane and crosses the pond to London, where his daughter — Liane Balaban, as Susan — is getting married. For reasons never really made clear, Harvey is almost completely estranged from not only Susan, but his ex-wife (Kathy Baker) and all their former friends.

Indeed, Harvey is booked into a hotel by himself, while the rest of the wedding party is lodged together elsewhere … an outrageously cruel act — and wholly unwarranted, given this film's absence of justification — that the mugwumpish Harvey accepts philosophically. Worse yet, Susan waits until the rehearsal dinner, that evening, to tell Harvey that she has "bumped" him by asking her stepfather (James Brolin) to walk her down the aisle.

And we're supposed to view Susan as anything approaching a sympathetic character?


Elsewhere, the London-based Kate (Thompson), who trolls airport corridors and stops passengers to conduct surveys for the Office of National Statistics, has been roped by a co-worker into the blind date from hell. Oh, it begins reasonably well, but then the guy devolves into a total jerk when he bumps into a quartet of friends and drags them over to the table. ("You don't mind, do you?")

Now blindingly aware that she's the oldest person at the table, Kate finally makes excuses and stumbles off.

Kate also patiently endures endless phone calls from her mother (Eileen Atkins), lonely in her own right and devoted to helping her daughter find a fella ... when, that is, she isn't obsessed by the apparently bizarre behavior of the guy in the adjacent yard, who appears to be dumping bodies into a smoke-filled shed.

Any fool can figure out where that is going, although Hopkins tries to build it into a "big mystery." Rather vexingly, he never wraps up this sub-plot … and that's fairly typical of the filmmakers' sloppy (lazy?) approach to his entire picture.

OK, so Harvey — having gotten yet more bad news — and Kate finally meet properly, after the former flees back to Heathrow the moment his daughter exchanges her vows. From that point on, the film focuses on the slow courtship: presumptuousness giving way to curiosity, then grudging acceptance, mutual enjoyment and the flicker of hope that something genuinely significant might be stirring.

Sure, it's fun to watch Hoffman and Thompson flirt — first gently, then more seriously — their way into a relationship. I always enjoy seeing consummate professionals demonstrate their craft, whether we're discussing actors or chefs. But just as I'd be dissatisfied if robbed of the ability to taste what the chef had prepared, it's hard to get emotionally involved with two quietly charming people who don't



I suspect Last Chance Harvey has earned some of its juice — and perhaps intrigued its stars — precisely because these two characters are ordinary: This is an attempt to portray real-world lonely people. Well, no. You can't do that with Hollywood luminaries possessing the notoriety of Hoffman and Thompson; you need a cast of unknowns … and, more often than not, a European filmmaker with artistic sensibilities that aren't so glossy.

The film's technical credits are polished but unremarkable, and Dickon Hinchliffe's score doesn't bring anything to the party.

Frankly, I spent most of this film wondering how much time Hoffman — a notorious method actor — spent with piano lessons, to persuasively demonstrate Harvey's keyboard skills. Which means, of course, that I wasn't the slightest bit engaged by the storyline itself.

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