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January 12, 2009 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | January 12, 2009 |

The title alone is a semantic minefield: Last Chance Harvey. It’s gratingly clear from the outset that the thrust is that this is Harvey’s last chance to do something good for himself, or his relationships, or his career, but the ambiguous phrasing and distressing lack of punctuation are apparently trying to make the title into something more, as if Harvey’s a guy who thrives on last chances, or can be counted on when his back’s against the wall, or whatever. Basically the title is something that should be clearer, and could be, but willfully chooses to stop halfway, and that’s the problem with the film overall. Writer-director Joel Hopkins absolutely wastes a talented pair of leads in a story that could have played out in an hour on television, as is abundantly clear by the fifth montage of the main actors just walking around town and killing time and purportedly getting to know each other in a friendly way that could lead to something more. Granted, Hopkins’ work would be considerably easier if he weren’t competing against Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, to say nothing of a century of generally competent and engaging filmmaking that has driven home the lesson that not all stories must be heavy affairs, but they do need to be honest, and genuine, and possessed of a momentum that makes them worth watching. Last Chance Harvey is none of those things.

Harvey (Dustin Hoffman) is an amateur jazz composer and professional jingle writer in New York prone to fits of self-pity and worry as he watches his coworkers leave him behind for the digital age. He’s on the verge of being fired as the film opens, and though he’s about to leave for London to attend his daughter’s wedding, he repeatedly tells his boss (Richard Schiff) that he’ll be back for the big client presentation on Monday. His boss comes out with the ultimatum: “You’d better land this one. … There are no more chances, Harvey.” (Hopkins was apparently worried about whether his film’s title would make sense, or whether viewers would be able to pick up on things like subtext or the general plight of the protagonist.) While all this is going on, Hopkins occasionally cuts to the parallel story of Kate (Emma Thompson), a Londoner who works at Heathrow taking surveys from travelers and who inhabits the sort of quiet, sad life like Harvey’s that would have made for a good character study in a better film. Harvey and Kate have their first run-in when he arrives at the terminal and brusquely dismisses her attempt to ask him a few questions, and though this first meeting provides a solid springboard for the way they’ll reconnect later in the film, it loses some of its accidental luster after a series of near-misses that reduce romance and chance to nothing more than cheap movie tropes. For one instance, there’s the scene where Harvey exits a cab just as Kate enters it from the other side, which for Hopkins must mean that their love is destined to be burned into the heavens. It’s not that these things can’t happen, even in film; it’s that Hopkins is content to borrow from stories like the odious Serendipity and act as if getting Harvey and Kate together is an inevitability not even cabbies can undo.

The bulk of the film unfolds over the 36 hours spanning the rehearsal dinner and the wedding itself, with Hopkins maintaining the parallel structure as Harvey and Kate put themselves through similarly awkward situations that are just real enough to feel legitimate but often too cartoonishly handled to be empathetic. At the dinner for Susan (Liane Balaban) and her fiancĂ©, Harvey keeps bumping into people or stumbling in the swanky restaurant’s rock garden, or trying to hide the theft magnet that was somehow never removed from his new suit. Unable to stand the sight of his ex-wife (Kathy Baker) and her new husband (James Brolin), not to mention the news that Susan wants her stepdad, not Harvey, to give her away, Harvey tells Susan that he’ll be bailing on the reception the next day so he can return home. Their exchange is one of the few in the film that works because it plays to every sad, broken emotion that the characters have lived through but don’t know how to fix, and had the film packed more moments like this one, it would have had a greater and more genuine impact.

Finally, halfway through the film, Harvey finally meets Kate when he’s back at the airport after the wedding, and they strike up a conversation, and take a walk around the neighborhood, and I think we can all see where this is going. Hopkins sees it, too, and never pretends to make the film about anything other than Harvey and Kate’s gradual coming together. And that’s not bad. But if that’s the story — and it is — Hopkins must put enough into the characters to make them worth watching get together, and he’s got to respect them enough (to say nothing of the audience) to make it feel real. While Harvey was feeling ostracized at his daughter’s rehearsal dinner, Kate was on a bad blind date with a guy clearly too young for her; these people have both been through bad experiences recently that mirror their greater struggles in life, and what’s more, Harvey is reeling from loneliness and pain and stress and heartbreak and obviously looking to latch onto something he perceives as stable. For Hopkins to have brought this up, even obliquely — in other words, for him to have Harvey and Kate actually discuss their similar states of desperation and loneliness and a need to find some, any, remedy —would have made for a marvelous and brave story about finding new and different love and what it means to honestly take a chance. But instead Harvey and Kate just wander around town before heading to the reception so he can take that last chance to make things right with his family.

I wish I could say some of that was spoilerish in any way, but again, Hopkins makes no secret of the fact that he’s out to make a howlingly predictable and not very honest “romance” that borrows from other films and a general sense of fantasy. (I cannot even get into the subplot involving Kate’s mother, her neighbor, and a Rear Window-meets-Love Actually turn of events without shaking my head in dismay.) The film is a trodden-down attempt at a late-life love story that eschews the emotional complexity and maturity worthy of its characters in favor of something cheaper, easier, and infinitely more hollow. Hoffman and Thompson do as much as they can with the limited script and hands-off direction, but they have nowhere to go because they’re never allowed to act like adults with any real history before the opening credits. There’s an honest fear and desperation motivating Harvey and Kate that’s blanketed by Hopkins’ desire just to tell a falsely sweet tale, and he winds up cheating his art and his audience. The movie he makes is easier to swallow, but it tastes stale.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

You Ain't Nothing to Me if You Got Nothing To Say

Last Chance Harvey / Daniel Carlson

Film | January 12, 2009 |

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