[16 January 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Last Chance Harvey is a movie about starting over. You’d guess as much from its title, which subjects the horribly named Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) to several restarts before it’s over. He opens the movie at a piano, slaving away in a recording studio as a commercial jingle writer, barely able to pry himself away from his work in order to jet to Heathrow for his daughter Susan’s (Liana Balaban) wedding. His trip is marked by his efforts to maintain contact with that work, mainly through assorted cell phone calls, and not-so-finally punctuated by his arrival at a London hotel, where he learns he has not been assigned a place along with the majority of the wedding party, but is instead left on his own, Susan imagining he’d only disrupt proceedings by his efforts to keep working. She’s right. He’s affronted. His ex, Jean (Kathy Baker) is residually angry.
The welcome wrench in this family meltdown melodrama is Kate (Emma Thompson)—whose last name, Walker, suggests again that writer/director Joel Hopkins spent too much time thinking up allusive monikers. A hospitality worker at Heathrow, she’s immediately pegged as lonely, shuffling to work, saying hello to the postman, looking in on her mother Maggie (Eileen Atkins), who is also lonely, and not incidentally, also residually angry at a husband who abandoned her, though he did it for his secretary, not work per se. The parallels and differences in Kate and Harvey’s situations are set up perfunctorily at the film’s start—each is headed toward one another, until they meet, he rejects her hospitality worker query, and he heads to the hotel-and-wedding disses, while she’s off to a blind date that makes her miserable.
Of course, Kate and Harvey re-meet, after he decides the pain of being rejected by his ex, feeling awkward around his daughter, and being fired by his boss back in NYC (Richard Schiff) is all just too much. In an airport bar, he catches a glimpse of Kate’s lovely neck as she’s bent over a book. He flirts, she resists, he insists. They head off for a day of montagey sightseeing, the soundtrack afflicted with plinky-pianoness.
She doesn’t say much about herself (as she appears to be the primary rescuer here, even as she must also be saved from her fear of a man leaving her), but he talks a lot. He tells Kate he’s an erstwhile jazz pianist, sunk to jingle-writing to pay bills and then, for no apparent reason except that he’s a man and built that way, finds himself immersed in the business to the point that he neglected his family. “What happened between you and your daughter?” she asks helpfully. “I don’t know,” he says, his whole voice a sigh of bafflement and self-pity. “Somewhere along the way, I just lost her. I woke up one morning and I realized I didn’t belong in that house.” How sad! And has more: “I always had that feeling in my stomach that they were a bit embarrassed by me.” The camera lingers on his crumbling face. She looks supportive. She agrees to go back to the reception, as Harvey’s “friend.” he buys her an appropriately black dress to wear.
The movie has precious little to say about families, romances, or generations, betrayals or loyalties, anxiety or courageousness. It leans on its charismatic stars (especially Thompson) to carry insipid dialogue and predictable plotting. Kate encourages Harvey to make it right with Susan. He makes a father-of-the-bride speech that impresses Susan. He plays an original piano composition that is almost unbearably not impressive and impresses Kate. They talk some more, under more montagey circumstances.
To complain that Last Chance Harvey goes nowhere is to miss a point, perhaps, as it really is about a man and a woman who can only share their initial moments in stasis. Even while they walk around London, the camera keeps them in center frame, as if to underline their actual lack of motion, their efforts to find something that feels like stability. When his ex-boss offers to rehire Harvey, he’s feeling sure enough of his new and last chance that he can reject work. It’s a sign of emotional growth, especially as he absorbs Kate’s rather colorfully stated anxieties (“You just dive in there anywhere! I’m not a bloody swimming pool”), he looks almost serene. Or at least, immobile. And that, in this movie, becomes an ending.