Well my friends are gone
And my hair is gray
And I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day In the tower of song
-- Tower of Song, Leonard Cohen
Harvey Shines (Dustin Hoffman) is a New York jingle-writer who doesn't quite toil in the tower of song; maybe in a small office in a nearby strip mall. But the rest of it applies; he's older, tired, headed to London for his daughter's wedding and obsessing about getting back fast in time for a job-related meeting. Harvey's dreading the trip before he even takes it, which guarantees it will be dreadful, but then he meets Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), another single, singular person unwilling to confront the terrifying possibility of happiness. ...
Written and directed by Joel Hopkins (who previously gave us the younger-skewed Jump Tomorrow), Last Chance Harvey may be easily -- in fact, too easily -- dismissed as "Before Sunrise for the sunset years," as Harvey and Kate meet accidentally, mesh immediately, dare to hope, get brought together by chance and separated by accident. Younger audiences will ignore Last Chance Harvey like a an overdue bill notice in the post, but if you've been around the block of life a few times -- on the bus or under it -- you'll find that it wins you over, bit by bit, in no small part thanks to the mix of effortless charm and contemplated sincerity Hoffman and Thompson bring to their work; the whole film has an air of lightweight gravity to it, and Hopkins may not be swinging for the fences, but he knows just how to swing and hit for a solid double.
Indeed, Hopkins not only knows how to put spin and swerve on the traditional romantic comedy (When was the last time you saw a romantic comedy where the combined age of the two leads was over a hundred and twenty years old?) but also manages to deliver the expected moments with a little bit of flourish and flair. There are a few extraneous plotlines in Last Chance Harvey -- do we need to see Thompson's mother spying on her neighbor Rear Window-style? -- but then there'll be a moment, like Harvey's self-aware and humble but not self-pitying or hurtful wedding toast, where you can see the obvious effort and endeavor on everyone's part playing out on-screen.
Hoffman manages to make us like Harvey, but, more importantly, he makes us understand him; as Harvey watches his ex-wife (Kathy Baker) and her new husband (the bluff, majestic James Brolin) take the lead at his daughter's wedding, we understand what he regrets and what he accepts. Thompson also makes Kate more than what she could be -- Thompson's always had a particular skill with hesitant pauses, the kind where you can see her brain moving faster than her mouth, and in Last Chance Harvey, that serves her well: How can she be so willing to spend so much time with this ridiculous American? Part of it is that it's nice to be needed; the other is that both Harvey and Kate, alone and used to that state, find that they need to be nice -- need to know that their help or approval can actually matter to another person, after all.
Last Chance Harvey is a movie for grown-ups, but not in that clammy, Oscar-craving way that would make it untenable; it's a movie about people that takes place in the real world. Which, of course, dooms it to oblivion. Last Chance Harvey's a nice, well-acted movie for a rainy Sunday afternoon, because while we all know (or would like to think) that it's never too late, it's still a nice principle to see expressed and proven before our eyes.