There's not a believable minute in the 92 minutes of "Last Chance Harvey," but Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson smooth over most of the problems just by showing up and doing what they do for a living.
To invest fully in this agreeable piffle, you'd have to accept that the middle-age lonely hearts frump played by the luminous Thompson cannot get a date. You'd have to buy that the composer-for-hire played by Hoffman, whose New York job is on the ropes and whose trip to London, for his daughter's wedding, sets the narrative in motion, is charming as written. He is not. He's charming as played by Hoffman, once the character gets out from under all the humiliation heaped upon him by writer-director Joel Hopkins. But as written, he's a borderline stalker. Instead of four weddings and a funeral, this is one wedding and a stalking.
What saves Hopkins' sophomore feature effort (his first was "Jump Tomorrow" eight years ago) is the occasional humanizing surprise amid the romantic comedy machinery. "Last Chance Harvey" introduces Harvey and Kate in their separate orbits and in short order humiliates them, for the purposes of Getting Us On Their Side. Kate's ignored by a blind date in a pub; Harvey arrives in London only to learn his daughter plans to have her stepfather, played by James Brolin, give her away. Things like that.
Once we're on their side, though, Thompson delivers especially crafty work. They meet at the airport, where Kate's working as a poll-taker for the Office of National Statistics. Chance meeting leads to conversational thaw, and one thing leads to another, and Harvey asks Kate to be his date at the wedding.
The trick with romantic comedy isn't being surprised. The trick is being not surprised, in the right way. These characters barely exist as written. Yet you warm to Thompson and Hoffman. They don't force anything; their antennae are telling them not to, because Hopkins is doing enough on that score already. They find their points of contact as they stroll around London and share a bit of themselves, "Before Sunrise" style.
The film leads up to one bit owing more to "An Affair to Remember" than any film should owe (though this affair has a much happier ending -- whoops, sorry, "spoiler"), and I wish Eileen Atkins (as Kate's meddlesome mum) had more than one running gag, the one about her mysterious, possibly homicidal Polish neighbor. "Last Chance Harvey" is what it is: a pleasant put-up job, held up by world-class pros.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun