Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Harvey makes the best of his last chance

In London for his daughter's wedding, a struggling jingle-writer, Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman), misses his plane to New York, and thus loses his job. While drowning his sorrows in the airport pub, Harvey meets Kate (Emma Thompson), a British government worker stuck in an endless cycle of work, phone calls from her mother, and blind dates. A connection forms between the unhappy pair, who soon find themselves falling in love.

Falling in love can happen at any age. Last Chance Harvey emphasizes this romantic theme while having a bit of fun doing it. Playing two lonely middle-aged people who find each other during some tough times in their lives, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson may look ill-suited for each other here, but they deliver the goods with believability and charm. Who would expect these two actors to be the most fascinating on-screen couple during 2008?  Hoffman portrays Harvey Shine, a man disappointed with the way his career has turned out. Although quite talented as a composer and pianist, he’s ended up writing jingles for commercials. And his boss (Richard Schiff) hints about bad things to come. On the personal side, Harvey’s relationship with his estranged daughter (Liane Balaban) couldn’t get much worse. To attend her wedding, he must leave New York City --during what he insists is a crucial time for his job --and travel to England. After arriving across the pond, Harvey faces the humiliation of being the odd-man out at his own daughter’s nuptial activities. Luckily, our sad-sack hero soon meets Kate Walker (Thompson), a woman who spends most of the time answering calls from her quirky mother (Eileen Atkins). Mom can’t seem to stop pestering Kate about her single status or her curiousity of her new polish neighbor (Robert Jezek), who just always seems to be barbequeing. Unfortunately, Kate’s latest blind date resulted in considerable embarrassment for her --so she’s not in a very happy emotional state when Harvey tries to start up a conversation with her.  These two walking wounded believe they are losers and that love has passed them by. However, their amusing interactions and shared misery help them establish a strong bond, one that offers them a chance for happiness. Despite the painful and, of course, humorous obstacles standing in their way, will they be daring enough to risk being together as a couple?  Hoffman and Thompson give great performances as the unlikely Harvey/Kate duo. They are a treat to watch! Because of their brilliant acting skills, it’s easy to feel empathy for the unhappy characters they portray. Hoffman lends Harvey an almost pathetic demeanor during certain parts of the film, and Thompson makes Kate someone we care for from the very beginning. She’s a real pro at changing expressions in the blink of an eye, which serves her well in various interactions with Hoffman. Thompson towers over Hoffman, so they look like Mutt and Jeff. This striking visual reinforces the idea that Harvey and Kate may not be right for each other. And yet a surprising Hoffman/Thompson chemistry comes across in practically every one of their scenes together.  Hopkins's follow-the-dots approach to the up-and-down stages of developing romance between Hoffman's Harvey Shine and Thompson's Kate Walker is familiar and formulaic in the making. When this middle-aged couple is clicking with a renewed enthusiasm it's inevitable that a dash of cheap-minded pathos would be thrown in for good measure. In this case, Harvey's last minute medical emergency threatens the planned noontime rendezvous therefore triggering Kate's cynicism in her previously clogged heart. Other than this convenient bit of sentimental contrivance, Last Chance Harvey is a good-natured valentine to the rigors of unexpected mature love. Hoffman is disciplined and restrained as the bewildered Harvey Shine--an average guy torn by the choices and chances he never truly capitalized on emotionally. Hoffman's Harvey is gently befuddled but believable as a man stuck in an in-between existence of ambivalence. Thompson is soundly radiant and reserved as the uptight Kate confined to a world of lyrical printed pages and disastrous blind dates. Consequently, the undeniably attractive Kate is guarded--her vulnerable exterior unassumingly peeled by the impish Harvey.  Last Chance Harvey is an amiable and earnest examination of maturing adults discovering the giddiness of what they thought would evade their sensibilities--the vague conception of love beyond the restricting boundaries. A nice little Rom-Com deserving of this 4 rating on my "Go See" scale.

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