Last Chance Harvey is like one of those old candies in the dish at your grandmother’s house. Bitter and unpleasant on the outside, and filled with a sweet-ish center that, once found, isn’t the most unpleasant thing you’ve tasted since brushing your teeth in the morning. That might not sound like much of a compliment, but it’s meant to be.
Dustin Hoffman is the title’s Harvey, a fading jingle writer estranged from his family. Harvey is struggling to maintain his position at work, where young turks threaten to upset his old methods, and is warily about to fly from New York to London, where his daughter will be married. We learn quickly that fatherhood hasn’t been one of his strong suits. He’s out of step with the wedding plans and clearly on the periphery of his family’s regards. Harvey is so fringe that he might just fall off into an abyss.
In the meantime, there’s Kate Walker, played by a reassuringly centered Emma Thompson. Kate works a nothing job conducting passenger surveys at Heathrow, entertains her mother’s persistent worrying, and suffers the occasional set-up with her mates’ male friends. Her life is dull, and we don’t get the sense that it’s ever been anything but. Kate is a sleepwalker, waiting to bump into someone and wake up.
Kate and Harvey’s orbits finally converge, and a large chunk of the movie follows them on a protracted date, during which they couple meander through London. It’s an old folks’ LiveJournal version of Annie Hall, where instead of quippy observation the two engage in a relatively mundane conversation about their lives.
Put that way I suppose it sounds brutally dull, but what keeps Harvey alive is a pair of solid performances from Hoffman and Thompson. Hoffman, in particular, hits all the notes he avoided in that awful toy store disaster from last year. Not that I bought into his version of Harvey wholesale — the guy is a little too wise and knowing to have blown his life as badly as we see at the outset — but he keeps the movie alive and appropriately adult without resorting to foolishness or trickery.
Once Harvey meets Kate I got on just fine with the film, but for the twenty minutes prior I was ready to squirm down into my seat like an octopus seeking dark, tiny shelter.
That’s the bitter candy shell; as Harvey deals with issues at work and the fallout from poor fatherhood, early scenes are one tormenting moment of disgrace and humiliation after another. If I hadn’t read a few interviews with Hoffman that piqued my interest in his performance I well might have walked out; as is I could barely take the painful barrage.
So it’s balance that hurts the film the most. Without cramming all of a man’s failures into twenty minutes so we can have a further eighty of (more or less) redemption, the story might flow more naturally. By showing the guy’s problems as evidenced in his dealings with Kate as well as his family Harvey wouldn’t suddenly become punch-drunkenly wise and knowing, and their relationship would be more interesting. The film’s opening wouldn’t be as painful, and there would be more time for honest dynamics between Harvey and his family.
(Some of which does come across relatively well as is; Kathy Baker, James Brolin and Liane Balaban all work just fine filling out the core of his family.)
So Joel Hopkins, the writer/director who made a slightly more honest film in Jump Tomorrow, is really making a midlife fantasy. It’s grounded in reality, yes, and in the end there’s nothing wrong with that intent. But the work by Hoffman and Thompson is strong enough that the film’s lasting impact could have been more dramatic.