Friday, January 23, 2009

Take a 'chance' on this screen couple

“Last Chance Harvey” is a rare romantic comedy starring an older pairing, and it is an awfully sweet movie.

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson star as a pair of lonely people, who meet in London, start talking and discover an instant chemistry.

Hoffman is Harvey, a failed jazz pianist working as a jingle writer who is going to his estranged daughter’s (Liane Balaban) wedding in London. Thompson is Kate, an airport interviewer with no self-esteem, an overbearing mother (Eileen Atkins) and who has recently went on a bad blind date.

In London, things just keep getting worse for Harvey. His daughter tells him that she wants her stepfather (James Brolin) to give her away and he is informed that he has lost his job. It is at this point, having missed his flight home, that Harvey meets Kate in the airport bar.

Kate tells Harvey he must go to his daughter’s wedding reception. He agrees to go under the condition that Kate joins him as his “bodyguard.” This sets up a scene where Harvey gives a redemptive toast to his daughter. The toast is well written by writer/director Joel Hopkins and delivered with sincerity and warmth by Hoffman.

This is a low-key film that is full of chuckles, and maybe some tears, rather than belly laughs. You smile a lot while watching because you feel happy for these characters getting together and finding comfort in each other. It is ultimately a feel-good film with a lot heart.

The film is good at taking its time at establishing each character separately before bringing them together. Those who like their romantic comedies cheery from beginning to end may grow tired of the melancholy of these early scenes, but they are crucial to the film’s success. Harvey and Kate are both sad people, and that is what draws them together.

Hoffman and Thompson make a lovely screen couple with an easygoing chemistry. At 71, Hoffman is 22 years Thompson’s senior, not that you’d really notice. Hoffman doesn’t look his age and the age gap seems around a decade on screen. Maybe it all goes back to the fact that he was 30 when starred as a 22 year old in “The Graduate” back in 1967.

When the couple is just allowed to talk and be together, the film is a delight. Hopkins has written smart, sparkling dialogue, and these two very fine actors make it absolutely sing. Unfortunately, Hopkins didn’t seem to have enough faith in his dialogue or his characters.

Too often, just as a conversation is getting interesting, Hopkins brings up the score and drowns out the dialogue. Instead of getting to hear the rest of the discussion we are forced to watch montages of the couple walking along The Thames. These are likable characters, and watching their mouths move, but not hear what they have to say is frustrating.

There’s also a third-act plot development that is needlessly formulaic. A subplot involving Kate’s mother’s paranoia about her new neighbor’s seemingly sinister activities distracts from the main plot. It is a cute, funny bit of business, but unnecessary.

Hopkins should’ve had the courage to just let his characters talk like writer/director Richard Linklater did in his pair of films “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” As with “Harvey,” these films centered on strangers meeting and wandering a city together. In Linklater’s films the conversation continued to flow uninterrupted, and it was wonderful to simply listen to two intelligent, engaging people talk.

If Hopkins had followed a similar path his film would’ve been much stronger. Even with its flaws it is still more charming than the average romantic comedies and it can’t be stressed enough how good Hoffman and Thompson are together. “Harvey” is definitely worth seeing; it is just a shame it is simply good when it could’ve been great.

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