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Last Chance Harvey snuck in under the wire for 2008 Academy consideration, picking up a pair of Golden Globe nominations for its stars before settling into a quiet theatrical run. It was much appreciated by the audience willing to turn out for a mellow comedy about people older than thirty years. Writer-director Joel Hopkins' optimistic, civilized screenplay isn't about shocking sensibilities, and goes in for no grand effects. It's an entertaining variation to a genre that hasn't been seen for quite a while: the straightforward star-driven romance.
The setup is nothing extraordinary, all to the film's credit. TV commercial composer Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) takes a weekend off from his ad agency job to attend his daughter's wedding in London. Harvey maintains a reasonably positive attitude, considering that he's been shut out of the general celebration and isn't made welcome at the rehearsal dinner. Daughter Susan (Liane Balaban) has decided that her stepfather Brian (James Brolin) should walk her down the aisle. Harvey knows he hasn't been close enough to his family, but his ex-wife Jean (Kathy Baker) takes obvious pleasure in showing him up as an all-round failure. That verdict becomes final when Harvey's boss fires him long-distance from New York. Alone at the back of the church, Harvey watches the wedding as an outcast and decides to skip the reception later that afternoon.
Stopping off at a pub, Harvey meets Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), who he remembers as a statistics taker at Heathrow. He apologizes for brushing rudely past her when he arrived. Kate has a different set of problems. Her life is getting nowhere, and she's tired of dealing with her mother Maggie (Eileen Atkins) a slightly addled busybody who imagines that her neighbor is a serial killer. She hasn't yet recovered from a depressing blind date with a man far too young for her. Kate is at first annoyed with Harvey, but then allows him to walk her to her writing class. The more they talk, the more they seem to have in common -- considering that they're strangers from completely different backgrounds.
Last Chance Harvey doesn't trade in plot twists, heavy drama or anything that can be called "outrageous" in a review. It is about two personalities establishing a relationship through conversation and applied social skills. It's a star vehicle in the best possible sense. Harvey is a mellower version of Dustin Hoffman's nervy younger self, as recalled in movies like Kramer vs. Kramer. With more years of experience and disappointment, Harvey just wants to hang on to some dignity. Jane clearly considers him a loser, a not-good-enough musician who writes jingles for household products; her new spouse in London is connected to high finance. Harvey is powerless when his former partners dump him as an obsolete liability. 1
Emma Thompson's Kate Walker cautiously allows herself to become acquainted with Harvey, whose willingness to wait outside her writing class comes off as the action of a friendly fellow, not a stalker. They walk for hours by the Thames while they learn more about each other, and we feel the positive chemistry that grows when two strangers make a successful connection. When Harvey finally confesses his disappointment over his daughter's wedding, Kate cares enough to insist that he attend the reception, for his own good. Harvey says yes, but only if Kate will come with him. She's only met him a short while ago, and she has nothing appropriate to wear. Does she dare to get involved with Harvey so quickly?
The Kate -- Harvey relationship blossoms, as do pairings that just seem to click without the need for emotional fireworks. Harvey recovers his dignity at the reception. Author Hopkins does throw in a complication at the eleventh hour, to give the would-be lovers second thoughts. By that time we're thoroughly charmed; Last Chance Harvey is Before Sunrise starring more mature adults.
That's the whole show: your interest level depends on how interested you are in problems that don't concern saving the world or transforming into a superhero. The London setting is an attractive background for the unusual courtship. Joel Hopkins' script features excellent dialogue that allows the stars to work out a credible chemistry before our eyes. Hoffman and Thompson are great company and Last Chance Harvey is an exceedingly pleasant experience. I'm convinced that many more people will discover and appreciate it on home video.
Anchor Bay and Overture's disc of Last Chance Harvey looks stunning in Blu-ray. The colorful images of London feel like a vacation and Dickon Hinchliffe's pleasant score is as endearing as the two stars.
Joel Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson all appear on the disc commentary, talking about their approach to Hopkins' delicate script. Dustin explains that the piano piece he plays in the opening scene is his own composition. Although he's not averse to taking credit for many good touches in the movie, Hoffman is very generous with praise for the film's spirited supporting cast, and makes sure that he names them all. Hoffman and Thompson clearly used their position of strength on the production to fine tune the casting and keep the performances at a high level. An Unconventional Love Story is a slightly mellower take on the typical EPK featurette, showing the relaxed atmosphere on the set. A trailer is included as well, as are several promos for other Overture releases.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Last Chance Harvey Blu-ray rates:
1. I wonder what kind of deal Harvey Shine has with the agency. He must have been quite a marketable talent to rate a permanent place on the payroll. It was some years ago that I left TV commercials, but most jingle writers and composers I knew were freelancers (both fat and starving), slaves to the whim of "musical" executives who wanted them to imitate the latest movie theme or song hit.
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.