Friday, January 16, 2009

Last Chance Harvey is Decent British Rom-Com

The English have a knack for making romantic comedies that are neither too saccharine nor too pessimistic. The list in my mind goes back quite a few years now: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and About A Boy. Joel Hopkins’ Last Chance Harvey is very much in the same vein. Two middle aged people who have fallen short of their respective dreams meet and find the beginnings of love and the promise of a new beginning together.

Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) is down on his luck and something of a black sheep. He’s about to lose his job writing jingles for commercials. His white suit (in a sea of black ones) still has the plastic anti-theft device attached. His daughter wants her stepfather to give her away at her wedding. Harvey is bitter about his failed marriage and looks unkempt, short, and unsuccessful next to his ex wife (a fine job done by Kathy Baker). In the major areas of his life, he is being edged out by what seem like better men. At work, he is being replaced by young experts in digital media. As a husband and father, he was replaced.

Hoffman gives a fantastic nuance to Harvey. He is uncomfortable in his skin, awkward with people, but not a jerk or a creep. He has difficulty making himself heard or even conversing. He tends to make a poor first impression, but his second impression is charming. Hoffman allows us to feel sorry and empathize with this character for his mix of pride and humility.
Kate Walker, played by the airy Emma Thompson, is less developed than Harvey. It is never clear why she has stumbled into the single life, except perhaps she is a tad unfriendly and busy. Early on, a failed blind date implies that her greatest fault is that she is middle aged while the men in the dating pool appear to be about ten years younger.

Nonetheless, Kate’s reason for singledom is not essential. The pair match well as an awkward duo, with Thompson towering over Hoffman, and showing him London’s less obviously romantic side.

The film doesn’t break any boundaries or challenge conceived notions. It doesn’t tread on new ground. It isn’t outrageously funny with situational toilet humor (that would be an American film) or have an ending in which every character is alienated and sad (that would be a French film). It is a very gentle look at how two people who can’t fit perfectly into the world alone manage to fit better into the world together.

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