Last Chance Harvey (2008)

Dir. Joel Hopkins
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson

I’m going to go out on a limb and recommend this to Mitchell and Tony–that is I think this would be worth the effort to see (although you could definitely wait for the dvd). There are elements that could make Mitchell really love this. There’s one thing about this that I think Tony could really enjoy. I’d say Penny, Jill, Marc, Don, Kevin, Chris, John, and Joel could enjoy this, too, but I’m almost sure it’s no big deal if you don’t see this. Certainly, it can wait for dvd. Perhaps, this film deserves a rating closer to five, but there are reasons (which I go into later) that bump it up to a six for me.

Hoffman plays a Harvey Shine, a jingle writer, who’s having a tough time at work: if he doesn’t close his current deal, he’ll be fired. What’s more, he’s off to London for his daughter’s wedding–someone he’s lost touch with. His icy relationship relationship with his ex-wife doesn’t help. Along the way, Kate (Thompson) enters the picture and…well, you have to find out the rest for yourself.

One of the good things about the film is the absence of typical attempts at cheap laughs and romance–well, for the most part. I don’t mean to give the impression that the film is completely atypical–-it is a conventional romance–but the film avoids (melo)dramatic and comedic developments that I would expect in a Hollywood film–-and that’s a good thing.

The comments I remember about this film was that the script is cliche, but it was a good acting vehicle for Hoffman and Thompson, who make the most of it. I almost agree with both statements. The story is cliched, (which doesn’t really hurt the quality of the film, imo). The film is also a good acting vehicle, and Hoffman, someone I think is overrated at times, gives a solid performance. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Thompson, who is an actor I find attractive and likable. To be fair, the actual character (and chemistry between the principal actors–more on that later) depends upon the director and writer just as much as the actor (or at least determining blame is pretty difficult). The bottom line is that the character failed to communicate what she was-–namely a person longing for love and frustrated by never finding it. Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention, but that was not conveyed to me at all–-at least I didn’t believe it–-so much so that when Kate articulates these feelings at the end of the film, I was surprised. And I so wanted to believe what she was saying. Thompson was not unsympathetic or unlikable in this film. She is likable, but her inner turmoil wasn’t communicated effectively.

Equally important for me was the lack of chemistry between the two actors–chemistry, which if present, would have made this a really enjoyable movie, cliched script and all. When Harvey has the first meaningful encounter with Kate, his charm was utterly unconvincing. For example, he says something like, “If you smile more, I’d be happier” or something to that effect, which makes her smile more. Scenes like that, pivotal to convincing me that they really connect, didn’t work for me. To be fair, the lack of chemistry can’t be blamed entirely on Thompson or both actors. The director and the writer could also significantly affect the chemistry. For example, in many of the scenes where Harvey and Kate are walking around, getting to know each other, are just not that interesting or convincing (that they really have a connection). I think the director and writer bear significant responsibility for this (or at least could bear responsibility). In any event, the success of the film depended on the actors and chemistry.

Despite this, I still mildly enjoyed the film. Part of the reason is that I kept wanting to believe in their relationship. Part of this had to do with the fact that I really liked and felt for Harvey. I completely bought Harvey’s pain at his ex-wife and daughter’s embarrassment of him. He’s awkward, uncomfortable and deeply hurt. That’s part of the reason his speech to his daughter is the highlight of the film. The other part is the speech itself and Hoffman’s touching and totally convincing delivery. I’d go far as to mention it is as one of my favorite moments in 2008 films. (One of the interesting things is that we learn that Harvey hasn’t been a good father and probably not the greatest husband. The film suggests that his ex-wife and daughter have reason to be disappointed in him, but the film doesn’t flesh this out, so we’re a lot more sympathetic towards Harvey, I think. I’m a little ambivalent about this tactic, but I guess I liked Harvey so much that I didn’t really care that the filmmakers made this omission.)

Earlier I alluded to the way this film avoided Hollywood conventions of romance and humor. I wanted to be a little more specific. If this were a typical Hollywood film, perhaps the ex-wife would have been more blatantly mean and then she would have received her just desserts. I also thought the film could have tried to show Kate grow to appreciate her mother in some melodramatic ending, but, thankfully, that never happened. Also, in a Hollywood film, I’d expect to see Kate’s mother and the mysterious neighbor hook-up in some humorous finale. Instead, the neighbor politely invites her in to his house with no suggestion of anything naughty; pretty boring, but simple and real. I liked that sensibility and it runs through the film, with the notable exception of Harvey proposing to Kate. I would have preferred an ending that suggests Harvey and Kate will pursue their relationship to see what happens. They could have framed this in a positive light, leaving the audiences on a positive note.

A worthwhile project and solid attempt which, if it worked for me, would have made a very good movie.

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