Just why Joel Hopkins’ gentle, charming, completely unassuming Last Chance Harvey was foisted on critics and the like with an eye toward awards season, I have no idea—and I think this probably worked more against the film than for it, since it suggested a degree of importance that the film simply doesn’t have. Last Chance Harvey is merely a romantic comedy/drama star vehicle with two mildly unusual hooks: the ages of the stars and its use of London as a romantic setting (has London been used in this manner since the Swinging London of the 1960s?). Both are reasonable attractions, but neither makes the film awards fodder.
It’s always nice to see the prospect of romance as something not limited to the young—especially, if you’re no longer young yourself—even if the idea is a little shy of blindingly original. We’ve had such couplings as Charles Boyer and Mildred Natwick in Barefoot in the Park (1967), Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give (2003) and Frances McDormand and Ciarán Hinds in last year’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. For that matter, Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction (2006) found the same two stars of this movie, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, edging toward romance by the end of the film. That there’s a 20-year age difference between the two stars (a fact stressed in neither film) perhaps adds something, but not much.
The charms of Last Chance Harvey lie almost entirely in the combined screen charisma of Hoffman and Thompson. Despite its affable tone and obvious generosity of spirit, the film would be unthinkable without them. Everything about it is so completely geared to the pair—even to the disparity in stature. That Thompson sometimes almost dwarfs Hoffman works in much the same way that the pairing of Hoffman and Vanessa Redgrave did nearly 30 years ago in Agatha (1979). There’s something about it—something indefinable—that makes them complement each other.
The story is simple almost to the point of being nonexistent. Harvey Shine (Hoffman) is a composer of insipid advertising music, whose life is in flux due to the prospect of being pushed out of his job by younger elements, and having to take a trip to London for his semi-estranged daughter’s (Liane Balaban, Definitely, Maybe) wedding. At the airport in London, he meets Kate Walker (Thompson), who annoys him by asking survey questions. He brushes her off in a rush to meet a series of indignities he hasn’t yet imagined—like being booked in a hotel by himself while the rest of the wedding party are ensconced in a comfortable mansion, courtesy of his ex-wife’s (Kathy Baker) second husband (James Brolin), and being told by his daughter that she wants her stepfather to give her away.
Harvey suffers through the wedding and the long-distance news that he’s been fired, but bails on the reception and tries (unsuccessfully) to leave London, causing him to seek solace in a drink at a bar—where, of course, he meets up with Kate again. They end up in conversation and then a walk and more conversation, which leads to him taking Kate to the reception. From there, you can practically write the film yourself—apart from a slightly forced contrivance used to produce the obligatory next-to-last reel misunderstanding—but this is one of those cases where the film does what you want it to, and the characterizations and leads carry it through. You may think you wanted a little more out of its 92 minutes, but if you look carefully, the more is there—constantly peering ‘round the corner at you in little moments that make this “last chance” romance almost painfully real in a way that’s tied to the ages and the attendant regrets and fears of the participants.
The film is at its best when it isn’t trying too hard. Quite the worst thing in it is a fashion montage that ought never to have escaped the cutting-room floor. The best things lie in the subtle touches—in the humanity of the characters. Most of the pleasant, but far from sidesplitting, laughs are provided by Eileen Atkins as Thompson’s mother (who has a subplot of her own), with the best gag being handed over to an old duffer (Leslie Randall) in Thompson’s writing class with a penchant for overstated, grisly crime fiction. A great film? By no means. But if you take it as the pleasant—and blessedly non-shrill—romance it is, there’s a good bit to like. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.