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01.14.09

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Phaedra

Laurie Sparham ŠOverture Films
A NEW BEGINNING: Dustin Hoffman falls for Emma Thompson in 'Last Chance Harvey.'

Late-Life Lift

An aging jingle writer finds love again in 'Last Chance Harvey'

By Richard von Busack


ABOUT AN HOUR into writer/director Joel Hopkins' Last Chance Harvey, the slack I was going to give this film ran out. Two-thirds of it is civilized late-life romance: the 71 but presentable Dustin Hoffman cast against a nigh-50 Emma Thompson. Stars like to have things their way; great actors go with the flow. For the most part, Hoffman gives us a real actor's recessive performance, a story of a man falling. Harvey is a New York commercial jingle writer with unfulfilled ambitions to have been a jazz pianist. Now he is even past his expiration date in the advertising industry, and he loses his job. Bad timing: Harvey is in the middle of an inconvenient trip to London to see his daughter, Susan (Liane Balaban), get married. The pretentiousness of a London marriage for a pair of Americans is compounded by Susan's grandee stepfather, a white-haired James Brolin. Adding to the tension, Harvey gets a quick dressing-down by his still-resentful ex-wife (Kathy Baker). The handling of class-conflict in these scenes looks just about right. Usually, there's one way to show the shift between a failed older generation and a young successful one, and that's to have the young ones do something gratuitously vicious. Here, both sides of the gap, of the shifting class embarrassment between father and daughter, are very well observed.

Harvey is alert, even in defeat, and we can believe his airport-lounge pickup of the equally forlorn Londoner Kate (Thompson), an aging singleton, the veteran of one too many blind dates. Kate has a mother (Eileen Atkins) who both harasses her about finding a man and still keeps her daughter on speed dial to make sure that her Kate will never have two spare moments to talk to anyone. After a first meeting, Kate and Harvey walk around London a bit. The high-summer river light in the South Bank makes the city look new and fresh. Just when we expect some unexpected sweetness, the movie goes salty; the couple stumbles across a group of buskers, but they're playing some raucous '50s rockabilly, not something sweeter, more old-movie romantic.

Thompson and Hoffman bring something to each other, a sense of opposing civilizations, the complement of American pushiness and British quiet desperation. And then comes the third act. Where is it? Lost in the mail, apparently, so Hopkins pilfers a setup from a little-remembered movie called An Affair to Remember by having Harvey set up a meeting in a public place and ... well, the principle "They liked it once, they'll love it twice" doesn't quite fit. Here's where Last Chance Harvey runs out of chances as it falls into inferior movie territory with a trumped-up misunderstanding for the couple. We also get an unlikely last-minute triumph for Harvey, as well as a stodgy reminder that "divorce is hardest on the children," in exactly those words. Even in this badly played endgame, Hopkins shows some taste. I liked the idea, right before the final crane shot of the Thames and the fadeout, of having the two think about their separateness a little. A peleton of bicyclists cuts between them as they stand their opposite grounds; it's a speedy symbol of life passing them by at top speed unless they act now.


Movie Times LAST CHANCE HARVEY (PG-13; 92 min.), directed and written by Joel Hopkins, photographed by John de Borman and starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, opens Jan. 16.

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