Brisk and as delicate as whipped cream, "Last Chance Harvey" follows the conventions of past movie romances while adding a few twists to its time-honored formula. The lead screen couple, for one, aren't twenty-something children, but older adults who have lived life and learned enough to be wiser (and in one-half of the equation's case, wearier) in the ways of love. Their relationship builds gradually, but warmly, reliant on little more than just back-and-forth conversation, bonding and compassion. When misunderstandings or other conflicts arise, they are worked out in a sensible, mature manner. There is even a climactic mad dash to an airport, but, in a change of pace, the person being run to works as an attendant there rather than someone about to take off into the sky.
Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) has made a long career out of writing advertising jingles, but with the onslaught of increased studio technology and younger faces is an evolving job that seems to be passing him by. As he prepares to travel to England to attend the wedding of daughter Susan (Liane Balaban), his boss (Richard Schiff) makes it clear he only has one last chance to sell himself to their newest clients. Things don't get better once he lands in London. An outsider looking in at a family that is no longer his, Harvey is unprepared for the news that Susan has chosen her stepfatherex-wife Jean's (Kathy Baker) current husband Brian (James Brolin)to walk her down the aisle. When he misses his plane back to America and subsequently gets fired, it's a final slap in the face.
While drinking away his sorrows at the airport bar, Harvey runs into Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), an airport attendant he rebuffed the day before when she had asked him to answer a brief survey. With a clearer mind, he apologizes, and as they begin to talk unlucky-in-love Kate starts to drop her guard. She is charmed by this stranger, and vice versa, and as they continue their chat and Kate ultimately ends up escorting Harvey to Susan's wedding reception, unexpected feelings blossom between them. Is a relationship even realistic for two people who live on different continents? Are they kidding themselves? Or is there more to their encounter than meets the eye?
"Last Chance Harvey" has been described as "Before Sunrise" for the older set, and while the comparison is superficial, there is a similarity. The story, from start to finish, takes place over a two-day period, and the majority of the compact 92-minute running time is dedicated to setting up Harvey and Kate as authentic people worth caring about and then following them around as they get to know one another. There is a silly subplot of sorts involving Kate's nosey mother, Maggie (Eileen Atkins), who suspects her new Polish neighbor of being a possible murderer, and these are by far the worst scenes in the film. They are completely unnecessary, but fortunately do not take up much screentime.
The bulk of the picture centers of Harvey and Kate, and this is where writer-director Joel Hopkins excels. Harvey, who has come to regret his quasi-estrangement from daughter Susan, is a touching character, and his decision to go to her reception, insisted upon by Kate, leads to some of the finest and gentlest of dramatic moments. Kate, meanwhile, has been going through the motions of her life for a long time, feeling as if she doesn't really fit in anywhere and resigned to an eternally single existence. Harvey is a little older than her, but she understands him. Their soulful connection is one that she is unprepared for, leaving her torn about whether he is worth taking a chance on at the risk of getting her heart broken again. As clichéd as some of this might sound, the writing and performances come from an honest place that lift it above familiarity.
At an unbelievable seventy-one years of age, Dustin Hoffman (2007's "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
") looks and carries himself like someone twenty years younger. That he can still admirably play the protagonist in a love storyheck, that anyone would be willing to consider such a thing with an actor in his seventiesgives hope to us all. Hoffman is charming as Harvey, but beneath that is a sense of pain and regret that grounds and humanizes him. He is not merely a puppet walking around at the mercy of a screenplay, but a person much more organic than that. As Kate, Emma Thompson (2006's "Stranger Than Fiction
") is her usual beatific self, radiant and vulnerable in front of the camera. She does not play her characters, but becomes them. The chemistry between Hoffman and Thompson is very much there; they are so easygoing with each other that it feels effortless.
The destination that "Last Chance Harvey" takes us to is a predictable one, often traveled, and the tone is relatively frothy and light. Nothing truly bad can happen to these characters, and with this acknowledgment comes a great reassurance. It's a delight watching seasoned actors taking hold of strong roles and running with them. That's where the magic happens. Carried out with a rare intelligence for the genre, "Last Chance Harvey" is proof-positive that a firm handle of material can make anything seem revitalized and fresh.