Monday, January 19, 2009

Last Chance Harvey

By Elise Nakhnikian

The story arc in Last Chance Harvey is as old as the setting sun, but it’s a pretty sunset, thanks to the grace and skill of its actors and their evident delight in one other.

Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) and Kate Walker (Emma Thompson) make an odd-looking couple at first in this middle-aged romance. He’s considerably older (Hoffman’s 71 to Thompson’s 48), and she’s nearly a head taller in heels. More importantly, he’s a brash American on a spectacular losing streak, while she’s a briskly cheerful, self-effacing Englishwoman whose life seems all too stable.

But those facts are given their due – which is to say they’re acknowledged head-on, then dismissed. And as soon as Hoffman and Thompson start talking, it’s a delight to watch their believable, beleaguered characters slowly wake up to the notion that they might actually have a chance at happiness together.

Hoffman and Thompson wanted to act together again after their collaboration in Stranger Than Fiction, which Thompson described to MoviesOnline as “one of those rare discoveries that you make sometimes in our profession. You could just work with someone and there seems to be no obstacle, no solving, no edges to rub off, no nothing. It seems to happen with a very peculiar intimate ease.”

Writer/director Joel Hopkins, whose Jump Tomorrow was another formulaic love story galvanized by a marvelous cast, allowed his actors to improvise in rehearsals and adapted the script accordingly. As a result, Hoffman says, the characters are “close to ourselves” – Harvey, for instance, is a frustrated jazz pianist turned advertising jingle writer because, before he became an actor, Hoffman was a would-be jazz pianist who wasn’t good enough to make the grade.

When we first meet Harvey, he’s struggling to keep his job. In London for the wedding of a daughter he’s been estranged from for years, he’s also struggling to find his place among strangers while her mother (an astringently excellent Kathy Baker) and stepfather (James Brolin, aptly cast as a self-satisfied silver fox) beam from the center table. Harvey’s unease makes him clumsy, and Hoffman does some nicely deft slapstick, sometimes literally scrambling to keep his footing in a world where things just keep falling apart.

Kate, in contrast, is self-contained to a fault. A classy yet earthy Englishwoman, she calls the writing workshop she goes to a “clawss” but gets a kick out of the geriatric student there who writes violent porn. She’s a good soul and a good sport whose broad smile and devoted friends signal that she knows how to have fun. But she’s settled into a deadening routine, grown “comfortable with disappointment,” resigned to a life with too many obligations and not enough companionship.

As Hopkins cuts between the two to introduce us to them before they meet cute in an airport lounge, we can’t guess at the playfulness and ease they’ll bring out in each other, but Harvey senses it from the start. Praising Kate’s habit of speaking the truth, he really listens to her. She warms under his admiring gaze, soon dropping her guard and revealing the charm we glimpsed beneath her reserve.

Hoffman says Hopkins and cinematographer John de Borman set out to make London look like Paris in this film. If so, they succeeded. Hopkins, who grew up in London and whose parents were both architects, sends Hoffman and Thompson wandering through gorgeous locations. Their all-day, all-night courtship encompasses a golden sunset on the Thames, a silvery dawn in a beautiful plaza, and a lively rockabilly band encountered on the street.

This is a love story about and for grown-ups. The stars are refreshingly Botox-free, looking like better but attainable versions of the average baby boomer. The self-confidence Hoffman has developed with age makes him looser and more attractive, but those lips that still keep twitching before curling into a smile are so thin they’ve nearly disappeared, while Thompson has a bit of a tummy and lines around her eyes that make her look tired when she’s not flashing that 100-watt smile.

Hoffman and actress Liane Balaban also make the relationship between Harvey and his grown daughter feel painfully real. When Harvey toasts his daughter, he teeters on the same cliff edge Ann Hathaway’s Kym falls over with her self-pitying wedding toast in Rachel Getting Married. Harvey winds up on his feet, but it’s a harrowing journey.

Not even Hoffman can salvage his end of the obligatory missed meeting that throws an artificial roadblock in the way of Harvey’s and Kate’s relationship, though. (What, he couldn’t call?) And the marvelous Eileen Atkins is wasted as Kate’s overbearing mother, in a stereotyped, would-be comic role that involves way too many calls to her daughter’s cell phone and an unhealthy obsession with a Polish neighbor.

But then you’re back with Harvey and Kate and all is forgiven. Watching these two charming, touchingly vulnerable veterans fall in love with each other, we fall a little in love with them ourselves.

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