[3 May 2009]
Dustin Hoffman stars as Harvey, an aged pianist who aspired to be a jazz musician but wound up in a lucrative but unsatisfying career writing advertisement jingles. The film opens with Harvey preparing for his flight to London for his daughter’s wedding. He’s been long divorced and has been steadily fazed out of his family, with his wife having found a charming replacement husband and his daughter, Susan (Liane Balaban), having pursued a successful career in England.
Now he’s being fazed out of his profession as well, with digital developments dulling his musical passion and younger co-workers edging in on his territory. Harvey is partially aware of his peripheral status in both fields but upon arriving in London, he realizes just how closely he’s bordering on becoming nonexistent.
Harvey’s scenes are balanced by scenes featuring Kate (Emma Thompson), a beautiful but visibly aging employee for Heathrow Airport who spends the majority of her off-work time quelling the many fears of her spinster mother (Eileen Atkins). The film spends an admirable amount of time illustrating Kate’s situation, demonstrating how a beautiful older woman can come to feel isolated and alone. Thompson, a luminous beauty, adopts the posture of a near-50-year-old customer service employee with aplomb, unafraid to let herself be photographed in less glamorous ways than usual.
Harvey and Kate meet at a Heathrow café. Harvey persuades her to accompany him to his daughter’s wedding reception, so that Kate may bestow him with the support he needs to keep a strong face throughout the proceedings.
Aside from a contrived montage of Kate trying on ridiculous outfits during a moment when time is really of the essence, the film moves remarkably quickly, bustling past at a swift 93-minutes. The film gives the impression it was shot in five days – and written in just as few – with many scenes culminating in the dialogue fading out and the score consuming the sound track as the lead characters traipse about London’s most scenic offerings. The characters stroll through the likes of Trafalgar Square, Paddington Station and Waterloo Bridge, all of which are presented so beautifully that the film must have been partially funded by the London tourism board; not that there’s anything wrong with that. (Further such indication is found on the DVD packaging, which advertises an online promotion for a free trip to London).
While the film appears to navigate effortlessly around a variety of London hot spots, the truth of the matter is that location shooting is a high-pressure, time consuming enterprise and it is actually to writer/director Joel Hopkins’ credit that the scenes blend together so smoothly. In this case, I can vouch for the uneven ratio between shooting time and screen time, having stumbled upon the crew filming on the Southbank in October 2007. Observing the corralling of extras, the warding off of bystanders, and the sheer number of takes required for a simple conversation is always a sobering reminder of how difficult an enterprise it is to make a film. And for the record, Hoffman states in the DVD audio commentary track that the film actually took 39 days to shoot.
But insight into the difficulties of location shooting aside, Last Chance Harvey feels like a very minor achievement. The film follows the familiar structure of a romantic comedy very closely, the only difference being the AARP-qualifying ages of its romantic leads. At one point, Kate says mournfully to Harvey, “We’re not teenagers anymore.” But by the last third of the movie, in which formulaic developments take precedence, they might as well be.
The stakes are set but they’re not followed through. Comments are made about lost pregnancies and abandoned families but the movie brushes past such issues very quickly. Neither their pasts nor their senior status bears any weight on the conclusion and ultimately, it feels as if their age holds little relevance.
With a few contextual tweaks in the script, the lead characters could easily be the teenagers that Kate proclaims them not to be. If that had been the case, the film would have been released in February or March rather than for a late December Oscar-qualifying run. Of course, the mature age of the characters allows for great actors like Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson to portray the leads. Neither role appears to be a challenge for them, but, so what? When’s the last time these actors got the chance to headline a romance? (1995 for Thompson with Sense and Sensibility; 1982 for Hoffman with Tootsie).
A making of featurette on the DVD reveals that the script came about when Thompson approached Hopkins because she was a fan of his first film, low-budget British film Jump Tomorrow. He then wrote the script based around her character, generating the titular Harvey second. Hoffman became involved because he and Thompson had recently worked together on Marc Forster’s Stranger than Fiction and were eager to reunite.
Between the featurette and the audio commentary track featuring Hoffman, Thompson and Hopkins, it quickly becomes apparent that Hopkins surrendered most of the creative control to his skilled lead actors. If you have even a passing interest in either actor, your appreciation for them will increase after listening to their audio commentary track. Despite being recorded separately both geographically and temporally separated during the recording of this commentary (Hoffman was in New York while the others were in London) both actors sound genuinely affable.
Thompson has a strong sense of humor and a charmingly down-to-earth disposition. Hoffman initially comes off monotonous and dry but quickly won me over with his ability to remember the name of virtually every actor he worked with on the film, even those who had barely a line of dialogue. He also mentions a few techniques he learned from Sam Peckinpah and Meryl Streep and how they influenced his performance – Streep’s decision to write her own court room testimonies for Kramer vs. Kramer inspired Hoffman to write his reception toast himself.
Last Chance Harvey isn’t particularly ambitious, and its minimal storytelling scope indicates it wasn’t designed for more than home video viewing (or perhaps in-flight entertainment), but it does offer a few certain charms. It’s the equivalent of a competently written paperback or a leftover helping of Ma’s comfort food. With the right expectations there’s nothing to be disappointed by – but there’s also nothing to be challenged by, either.