Dustin Hoffman as Harvey and Emma Thompson as Kate in "Last Chance Harvey", written and directed by Joel Hopkins.  The romantic comedy-drama opened wide today across the U.S. and Canada.  (Photo: Overture Films)

THE POPCORN REEL FILM REVIEW/"Last Chance Harvey"

For Him, A Last Chance To Make A First Impression; For Her, A First Chance At A Lasting Romance

By Omar P.L. Moore/January 16, 2009

A sweet and endearing movie about fitting love into a life of loneliness, "Last Chance Harvey" occasionally sparkles like a cool, clear Chardonnay in a sunlit glass.  This description isn't over the top for Joel Hopkins's calm and measured film, which puts actors Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson front and center in London. 

Mr. Hoffman is Harvey, a pianist who in these latter days of life composes jingles for a New York City music production company.  He is looking for a contract deal to bring to the company and to do it has to fly to London, where his estranged daughter also happens to be getting married.  We never really learn why he has been a bad father to Susan (Liane Balaban), but through silences and not-so subtle shunning and condescension by Harvey's ex-wife (Kathy Baker), we can't help but sympathize with him.  Isolated, losing his job and his daughter to Brian (James Brolin) -- her stepfather (in that order), Harvey has essentially become irrelevant in life.  "I'm tired", he mutters when Ms. Thompson as Kate, a Heathrow Airport questioner who takes classes in descriptive writing, initially asks him about his flight and his stay in the U.K., when he's not-so-fresh from his transatlantic flight.  Kate has had her bouts with a lovelorn existence and as an apparent only child she is at her fearful and suspicious mother's (Eileen Atkins) every beck and cellphone call (which might be a wake-up call for Kate to hurry up and get into the 21st century and find a man.)  Technology is just about the only thing that interrupts Kate's mundane and lonely life, for she is comfortable in her solitude, save for the friendship of a perky work colleague named Oonagh ("Pulp Fiction"'s Bronagh Gallagher) who tries to play matchmaker for her.  Kate, like her mother, is fearful and cynical, closed off to the possibilities of partnership and the risks it is fraught with.

Mr. Hopkins delicately marries the Harvey and Kate characters into the narrative, starting tangentially and then gradually reducing the distance between them.  In what can best be described as a gentle cabaret romance with all of the mood emanating from a jazz set at the Cafe Carlyle, the Piano Bar or the Blue Note, Harvey and Kate tango innocently as respectively senior and middle-aged souls before sincerity and honesty takes hold of them.  The pace generated throughout "Last Chance" is never extravagant for this director and its events don't appear to take greater precedence than the actors who create them, with the tone of the film not stilted so as to manipulate us to expect the inevitable.  "Last Chance Harvey" is a throwback to some of the subtle 1950's American films or more old-fashioned Hollywood film or the kind of picture that has the elements of fancy, longing, irony and melancholy found in Frank Capra's films.

As for the principals, it's not that Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson aren't good in their roles when they are on camera separately; it's that they are great together onscreen.  That success in togetherness is a more apt tribute to their acting skills, as the veterans deliver their best performances in many years.  Tenderness is more than a language between these two Oscar winners -- it's instinct, emotion and comfort that guide their character portrayals -- even in the uncertainty of Harvey and Kate's footing in the world they inhabit.  The potent chemistry they share is an understatement, yet in their initial moments as ships passing by in the night they couldn't be more distant. 

Mr. Hopkins' screenplay is fairly well drawn, clever, without taking us for granted, although there are one or two episodes where development of subplot is sacrificed for the sake of expediency.  That said, the script's bold and meek characters are authentic and a touch quirky, though the screenplay resists trying to be cute or overtly sentimental.  The visuals of cinematographer John de Borman's camera complement the performances and the well-dressed production design by John Henson comes to life in particular in one specific scene in a courtyard with water fountains.

Joel Hopkins, London-born, is just 38, and this is only his second feature film ("Jump Tomorrow" was the other) and "Jorge", a short film, constitutes the total of three films on his resume.  Mr. Hopkins is a major talent who will only grow in leaps and bounds.  His confidence here as both a director and writer is fearless and admirable, just like the character of Harvey.

The film's music score, by Dickon Hinchliffe, is an inner ear of both characters and it carries us to the conclusion, which while predictable, is real and pedestrian.  We know what will happen and what won't.

Here's one other thing you will come to know: a warm, charming time will be had by all who see this lighthearted romantic drama.

"Last Chance Harvey", which opened in wide release today across North America, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for brief strong language.  The film's running time is one hour and 32 minutes. 

Related: Popcorn Reel Hot! Minute YouTube Review of "Last Chance Harvey"

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