Monday, October 1, 2012

Relationships In A Short Time: Last Chance Harvey Offers A Mature Cast Loving Quickly.

The Good: Good mature cast, Elements of character and acting
The Bad: Oppressive mood, Not much plot to speak of.
The Basics: Deep and at times disturbing, Last Chance Harvey also has a lot of laughs from subtle, dry humor as two adults begin to get to know one another.

There is a certain irony in - the same day I had a discussion with a friend about how most new movies these days are simply adaptations of other, previously printed, works - watching yet another adaptation of a printed work in film (I saw Inkheart, reviewed here!, proximate to this!) that I would then go out for an evening and take in one of the few original films in theaters now. As it turns out, Last Chance Harvey is more than just an Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman vehicle seeking to appeal to the wallets of the over-40 crowd at a time of year when blockbusters are still clinging to live or are returning to theaters. Last Chance Harvey was both written and directed by Joel Hopkins and it is not based upon any novel, graphic novel, comic book or short film by another. It is, pretty original.

The best way to prepare one for the experience of Last Chance Harvey is to suggest (for sake of comparison, not quality) that the film is most closely a combination of About Schmidt (reviewed here!) and Lost In Translation (reviewed here!). However, given that I enjoyed neither of those films particularly, that might not be the best analogy for me to make. I did enjoy Last Chance Harvey, after a fashion, and while I already know I am rating it in the three-star range and recommending it that it is not one I would recommend people rush out and buy. This is hardly an essential DVD (when it arrives on DVD) for anyone's collection. But that said, it is an impressive work of mood and character and it portrays two things seldom seen in cinema today: 1. A cast where the average age is over forty, if not over fifty, and 2. A relationship based upon conversations and mostly just talking.

Harvey Shine is in a rut at work. A writer of musical jingles for commercials, he is quickly being replaced by younger workers and computer effects. The weekend before a meeting which will determine his chance of keeping the final account he has, Harvey heads to England where his daughter and her boyfriend are getting married. There, he brushes off a survey worker, Kate Walker, who is constantly plagued by her mother calling to see how her life is going. After an excruciating visit with his daughter - where he is informed that she would prefer her stepfather give her away - Harvey becomes despondent, which more or less coincides with Kate being fixed up on a blind date that she is abandoned during.

The next day, Harvey witnesses his daughter getting married, then tries desperately to get to Heathrow Airport where he manages to miss his plane back to the United States. In the airport lounge, as he begins to drink, he runs into Kate. After a few opening jabs at one another, Kate and Harvey begin a conversation on life, why Harvey is in England and their assorted disappointments. As they commiserate, Kate convinced Harvey to return for his daughter's wedding reception and both open up to the pain and joy of starting a relationship.

Last Chance Harvey is a comedy based far more on being able to laugh at adversity than anything funny. It is frequently an emotionally difficult movie, filled with slow, excruciating scenes like Harvey realizing he is the only one from the wedding party at the hotel, because his ex-wife has rented a house for everyone else, Harvey trying to save his career by taking phone calls in the middle of his toast to the bride-to-be and the moment Susan tells Harvey she wants to be given away by Brian. The film is preoccupied in its beginning with Harvey getting shat on by everyone and it becomes mired in the mood of complete devaluation of his life and experience. The result is not at all fun to watch.

But unlike something like About Schmidt, which is boring and difficult, Last Chance Harvey has a lot of humor. The humor tends not to be laugh-out-loud funny humor - though the physical humor of Dustin Hoffman as Harvey leaving a banquet room through a rock garden and slipping did make me laugh aloud - but rather a cold, reserved humor. For example, Harvey and Kate debate which of them has had a more shitty day and they go back and forth using that word several times at the climax of which, Kate very simply nods and declared "You win." But to say Last Chance Harvey is not funny at all is not entirely accurate.

What the film is, outside of slow and moderately humorous in a dark and ironic way, is an intriguing blend of adults wrestling with adult issues and behaving like children by taking uncharacteristic leaps. For example, both Harvey and Kate come to their encounter damaged and not emotionally available. Harvey is consistently devalued and degraded, Kate is judged so harshly by her mother for not being married that both see themselves as somehow less than what they are. But that is only where the film begins.

Last Chance Harvey truly develops as the conversations start between Kate and Harvey. they talk to one another. In an adult fashion, they share their damage, their hopes, their meals and their time. They begin to walk with one another and they illustrate maturity by addressing the uncommon issues that most people try to hide when getting to know one another: Harvey's ex-wife is referenced by him pretty frequently, he talks about his failures and Kate talks about her loneliness. But then, both take leaps. Kate, especially, leaps out of her comfort zone by simply saying "yes" to almost all of Harvey's questions. Harvey clings and Kate encourages it by not pushing him away after their initial dialogue.

This film is largely about how adults form relationships without simply falling into bed with one another. This is what emotionally damaged adults do when they want to work at being emotionally healthy: they talk to adults that share that desire to heal and grow and they go from there. So it is with Kate and Harvey and as a result, very little actually happens in Last Chance Harvey. It is adults talking a lot. But it works.

Largely what sells the film in this aspect is the fact that the cast is credible and mature. The cast is largely made of recognizable actors well outside the standard 18 - 24 target demographic. No, this film is ruled by the likes of James Brolin, Kathy Baker, and Eileen Atkins. Even supporting cast was used to create the impression that the film was existing in an adult world. This was done through inspired casting, like using Richard Schiff of The West Wing (reviewed here!) fame as Harvey's manager. Older people tend to have older managers and Schiff is given little screen time, but he uses it extraordinarily well.

Obviously, though, the film rests largely on the acting talents of leads Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman. As a potential couple, Thompson and Hoffman have decent on-screen chemistry when they get to the point where they need to. Until that point, both play their roles with a restraint that creates a feeling of very real and decent distance between them. Thompson, for her part, makes for an excellent leading lady, as always. In Last Chance Harvey, she is witty and strong and also able to play the quietly vulnerable scenes when needed. She is given the chance to express quite an array of emotion, but perhaps what illustrates her acting talent best is the way she opens her part in the film with Hoffman by speaking with a very quiet, distancing sarcasm.

Hoffman is great as the beaten down Harvey, but there is something in his performance that feels more familiar than surprising from him. Instead of being audacious and different, Hoffman's quiet portrayal of a man unsettled seemed like it was so safely within his range, I felt I had seen it from him before. If I have, though, I cannot place it. And he is good, making the transition of his character's body language (he doesn't smile for at least the first half hour of the film) realistic and work with the slow development of the script.

Last Chance Harvey is a slow film and those looking for a good time going into it are likely to be disappointed by how moody and dark the film actually gets. But there are some great lines and the themes of it work well and there are little triumphant moments which a reviewer ought not to ruin. Sufficed to say those who have been hurt before will find something familiar in Harvey and/or Kate and for those who bear with it, there is something worth hanging on for (even into the credits!).

For other works with Kathy Baker, please visit:
All The King’s Men
Cold Mountain
Edward Scissorhands


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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