‘Last Chance Harvey’: Story for watchable pair only scratches the surface

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Friday, January 16, 2009 6:09pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Watching movies involves all sorts of different pleasures. Maybe the pleasures of “Last Chance Harvey” stand out because the film is noticeably shy of greatness.

Among this movie’s draws: the sights of London, delivered in a quiet way, and the comedy of Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman striding along next to each other — she tall and gawky, he small and compact.

Through the first reels of “Last Chance Harvey,” these two are kept apart. Harvey is in London for his daughter’s wedding, an event where he feels like a stray dog, having been replaced by a warmer, more reliable stepfather.

Kate works for an airline, and endures her friends’ attempts to set her up on dates. One such evening is notable for its mortification level.

These amusing episodes lead to the accidental meeting of Harvey and Kate in an airport lounge. Strangely enough, the movie loses its footing after they begin hanging around each other — not the formula for a successful romance.

Harvey and Kate amble around London for a day and a night. The format suggests that writer-director Joel Hopkins has seen Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” films that enjoy the spectacle of two people walking and talking.

Problem is, the talk here isn’t all that interesting. Harvey’s about to lose his job as a commercial jingle writer, having long ago given up the dream of being a jazz pianist. These issues are so casually treated, it’s tough to worry for this wealthy fellow.

Hopkins directed a charming little romance in 2001, “Jump Tomorrow,” and doesn’t have a credit since then. This movie is designed as a vehicle for two of the world’s best movie actors, who appeared together in “Stranger Than Fiction.”

Hoffman takes a singular approach to romantic comedy: He’s annoying. His Harvey is a bottled-up guy, and Hoffman dials down his performance accordingly. Surprisingly, although Hoffman can do joy really well (think of the scene in “Kramer vs. Kramer” when he kisses a stranger at an office party), he doesn’t break out, despite the opportunity.

Emma Thompson has unfailing instincts, and her reactions to Harvey’s approaches keep the film somewhat believable. The movie makes a couple of glancing allusions to the 20-year age difference between the two — which is maybe a bigger issue than the filmmakers think.

“Last Chance Harvey” is one of those movies you can enjoy even when you’re aware it isn’t entirely working. London, Hoffman, Thompson — it’s enough.

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