[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
“Last Chance Harvey,” the second feature from writer-director Joel Hopkins (“Jump Tomorrow”), a meet-cute romance for the silver set starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, aims to attract the same filmgoers who made “Something’s Gotta Give” a hit back in 2003. Like any fairy tale, it assumes an audience who can identify with its characters, who can enjoy vicarious satisfaction when the unlikely comes true or when knots come magically untangled. But there’s a gap between pleasing and pandering to an audience, and one needn’t belong to that audience to smell the difference.
Hoffman and Thompson play characters that Hopkins’s script eagerly flags, for maximum turnaround, as lonesome losers. An old-fashioned jingle writer who obsesses over an Oxi-clean commercial while his weary superiors sharpen their downsizing knives, Harvey Shine (Hoffman) scampers from New York to London to attend his estranged daughter’s wedding as his career hangs in the balance. “There are no more chances, Harvey,” forewarns his superior (Richard Schiff), blaring the film’s thesis no less than five minutes into the film.
Kate (Thompson), first seen fielding “Why are you single?” indignities from her nosey mother (Eileen Atkins, unforgivably wasted), works in Heathrow Airport, sadly trolling the terminal in skirt and pumps, clipboard in hand, pestering grumpy travelers to answer a questionnaire. Kate encounters Harvey on his arrival at Heathrow, but their brusque exchange shows little promise. It does, however, set in motion a sequence in which Harvey’s mortifying night parallels Kate’s, point/counterpointing their misery toward a more palatable mid-film reunion (this is, after all, their last chance).
Harvey electrically shaves in the back of a cab, checks into a middling hotel, then discovers that his new suit has a security tag still pinned to his right sleeve. Offering left-handed shakes and fist-bumps to bewildered young men, he says vindictive things to his daughter (Liane Balaban), ex-wife (Kathy Baker), and his ex-wife’s second husband (James Brolin), all of whom seem deeply uncomfortable in his presence. Meanwhile Kate is on a blind date, passing awkward comments to her handsome thirtysomething escort. Though she’s noticeably uncomfortable in her own skin, Kate’s evening clearly has little in common with Harvey’s face-planting pratfall across town; nevertheless, the mechanical paralleling continues. Kate’s date mortifyingly invites friends to crash their conversation. Harvey learns that Brolin, and not him, will walk his daughter down the aisle. Apparently crucial to their characterizations, both Harvey and Kate answer their cell phones throughout these scenes — Harvey desperate to remain apprised of his career-in-the-balance account in NYC and Kate united at the hip with her lonely mother. Thus inappropriate cell phone use is both their common thread and Hopkins’s idea of symbolic meaning.
The failed, forced parallels continue when Harvey and Kate meet again at a Heathrow cafe after Harvey has missed his plane and his last shot. We know a lot about Harvey’s situation, but hardly anything about Kate’s. He’s a sad sack, while she’s just…single. Considering their unmistakable gap in age — Thompson still looks foxy while Hoffman, raffish shock of white hair notwithstanding, does not — the script should work a little harder at convincing us of Harvey’s appeal. Instead we get greasy pick-up lines like, “Shall I take that as a positive sign?” and “Can you give me a wider smile?”
Later, as they stroll alongside the Thames, past used booksellers and buskers, incessant score strumming away, she asks about the wedding reception that Harvey is missing, and encourages him to go. Of course he does, and of course he brings this stranger Kate, who of course gives him the courage to do and say the right things, which of course makes for an oddly appealing first date. Hoffman and Thompson are at their best during these scenes, with the former turning a cringe-worthy toast into a nakedly honest soliloquy, and the latter graciously listening (few actors can be this present, this active, in repose), adorably shambling, revealing her beauty in furtive flashes. But Thompson’s collaborative skill, her willingness to respond to Hoffman and foster rapport, can’t fully obscure an underwritten part. All the paralleling in the world can’t change the fact that while she embodies Harvey’s last chance, he can’t possibly be hers — whoever she is.
A last-act complication, aiming for supra-serendipity, comes across as stunningly crass. Not content to pine for the schematic sentimentalism of “An Affair to Remember,” “Last Chance Harvey” stoops to a silly pantomime of it. A missed rendezvous, ubiquitous cell phones suddenly vanished through narrative inconvenience: what will become of them? By leaving Kate so blank, we’ve no choice but to root for sad old Harvey to run through the London streets, heart murmur and all, to restore her faith in love and humanity. Kate, Emma Thompson, and the scores of older filmgoers drawn to this rare movie made for them, deserve better.
[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]