Judge Gordon Sullivan's formula for romantic comedy doesn't include murderers or smoked meat.
Our review of Last Chance Harvey, published May 5th, 2009, is also available.
It's about first loves, last chances and everything in between.
Many serious dramatic actors seem to avoid romantic comedy like the plague. It's partly that's because romantic comedy leads are often chosen for looks over acting ability, and partly that's because most romantic comedies are too formulaic to challenge the more serious thespian. That's why it's surprising that Last Chance Harvey, a romantic comedy, stars two dramatic heavyweights, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. This should hint to the astute reader that the film is going for something a little different from most romantic comedies. While that's a good thing, Last Chance Harvey (Blu-ray) isn't entirely successful in breaking away from annoying genre conventions.
Facts of the Case
Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman, Hook) is an aging jingle writer who's about to lose his last commercial account. Despite the gravity of the situation, he must fly to London to attend the wedding of his semi-estranged daughter. After he tells his daughter he won't be at the reception because he's flying back to New York to close a deal, Harvey discovers that she is going to ask her stepfather to give her away. When traffic keeps him from making his flight, Harvey discovers he's been fired and he's stuck in London.
Kate Walker (Emma Thompson, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), a Heathrow statistics gatherer, tries to question Harvey as enters the country; because he's busy, he brushes her off. She's a single, older woman who has to take care of her mother, a former cancer patient. Because of her mother's involvement, Kate's love life is empty at best. However, things begin to look up when she bumps into Harvey again in an airport bar after he misses his flight. From there the two of them share a whirlwind day together that includes shopping, a wedding reception, and a gorgeous fountain, but the two might have a problem connecting because of their pasts.
Last Chance Harvey is half a great movie. At about the 35-minute mark, our stars are finally introduced (although they've passed each other briefly before). For the next 45 minutes we're treated to some of the most charming, realistic moments in a romantic comedy I've ever seen. Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson have amazing chemistry, and their characters have enough baggage to keep them interesting. Watching them is like watching a pair of aging prizefighters in reverse. Instead of probing each other for weakness so they can strike, each slowly reveals a vulnerability to see if the other will pounce on it, destroying the fledgling relationship. If you most identify Hoffman with his role in Rain Man and Thompson with her turn in Sense and Sensibility, this film will be a revelation. In fact, it's a revelation even if you're more familiar with the actors' comedic roles. Here, they're more subtle, and the humor is more informed by the little ironies of life than it is by any punch lines. Sometimes a smile or a look gets more of a laugh than any of the dialogue, and the Golden Globe nominations for both the stars makes total sense. Credit should also go to the writer/director Joel Hopkins for making his romantic movie about people over 40; it's a bold move that pays off by allowing him to cast such magnificent actors.
Another plus for the film is this Blu-ray release. London often gets the gray treatment on film, emphasizing the rain and the fog. Not so with Last Chance Harvey. I can easily see this film being shown by the London Tourism Board because director Joel Hopkins fills his London with golden light which certainly helps the older actors. This glow is reproduced excellently on this video transfer. There is some noise here and there, and some of the darker scenes could look better, but overall this looks amazing for a romantic comedy. The audio doesn't have much to do, but the dialogue and music in the film are well-balanced. For extras we get an EPK-style making-of that includes lots of clips from the film as well as talking-head interviews with the cast and crew. In addition we're treated to an informative and informal commentary by Hoffman, Thompson, and Hopkins.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Last Chance Harvey has the most depressing first act I've ever seen in a comedy that wasn't pitch-black from start to finish. We're introduced to both Harvey and Kate, and they both lead sad, pathetic lives. Harvey is about to lose his job and has no passion for his work anymore. He has to travel to London to see his estranged daughter wed and deal with his ex-wife. Once there he discovers that he's staying in a hotel alone because the bride's mother rented a house for everyone but him. He's told to wear white to the pre-wedding party while everyone else wears black, and the security tag gets left on his jacket. Dustin Hoffman plays the sad-sack aspect to the hilt; while he's fun to watch, this rut was so deep that the movie took a long time to pull out. Kate isn't any better, living alone and being set up on horrible blind dates while her mother pesters her about the Polish gentleman next door who may be killing people in his shed. Although both characters are sympathetic, their lives are so sad it's difficult to get into the romance after the first 30 minutes of tragedy.
Speaking of Kate's mother, her next-door-neighbor-might-be-a-killer is one of the dumbest things I've seen in a film recently. It's obvious to everyone but Kate's mother that the man is smoking meat, and when she finally discovers this fact it is so anticlimactic that it borders on the pathetic. Perhaps if Hopkins could have written it so that the neighbor subplot had some bearing on the romance between Harvey and Kate it might have worked out better, but as it is the film should have cut out those three minutes of footage to save the audience some groans.
Of course the killer-neighbor subplot isn't the only groaner in the film. After Kate and Harvey have obviously fallen in love after staying up all night after Harvey's daughter's reception, they agree to meet at a particular cafe at noon to continue their affair. Naturally, something stupid and out-of-left-field keeps Harvey from showing up, leading to a stupid third-act estrangement 12 minutes before the credits roll. I know this kind of "lovers kept apart by stupid circumstances" thing is the bread and butter of romantic comedies, but it should come about half an hour earlier than the one in this film does. As it is this stupid subplot drags the movie out unnecessarily. Perhaps I should blame distribution conventions that require "feature length" movies. If Last Chance Harvey had started with Harvey and Kate meeting in the airport bar and ended 45 minutes later as the sun was rising, it would have been a great, unconventional film. As it is, it's a romantic comedy which is trying to do something new, which only lets the seams on the genre conventions show all the more readily.
Last Chance Harvey is easily worth a rental for the London locations and the Hoffman/Thompson pairing. Because of its oddities I can't guarantee it will be to the taste of all romcom viewers, but it's worth a look. This Blu-ray release, with excellent audio and video along with a strong commentary offers fans a good way to appreciate the film's charms.
Although Last Chance Harvey is guilty of some questionable plotting, it's acquitted because of a pair of fine performances by the leads.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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