Baby boomers in their youth used to snicker at genteel British comedies about lost souls finding each other. Now with Last Chance Harvey, they appear to embrace the experience of one of their culture heroes, Dustin Hoffman, milking their emotions as Harvey Shine. This New York jingle writer at the end of his personal and professional rope provides Emma Thompson's Kate Walker, a woman-in-the-street interviewer for Britain's Office of National Statistics, with a chance to enjoy life and break away from her too-needy mother. She gives this bundle of nerves and confusion a chance to become a full human being.
Written and directed by Joel Hopkins, Last Chance Harvey demonstrates that without an expansive vision or invention, a small-scale film can feel even smaller than its cast of dozens. The movie doesn't aspire to screwball-comic engineering. But without it, we're all-too-conscious of how everyone and everything in the frame, including family members and the entire city of London, conspire to bring Shine and Walker together.
Watching Thompson and Hoffman, you do believe the actors enjoy each other's company (they've said that's why they made the picture); you're not so sure about the characters. The performers' surfeit of delight translates into borderline archness. Shine is a Willy Loman whose family has already left him. His boss (the typecast Richard Schiff) puts him on notice (he has one opportunity left to save his job), but he's also a would-be artist who likes to pick out light-jazzy tunes on the piano.
Walker spends her days interviewing people right after they step off their plane about the reasons they come to Britain. She has family problems of her own - a mother (Eileen Atkins) in constant need of reassurance, even about matters as flighty as the possibility that her new next-door neighbor is a murderer. Walker goes on the occasional disastrous blind date, and suggests her own need for transcendence when she takes a writing class.
There's no enchantment to be had from the way Shine and Walker get together: Shine debarks from his plane, refuses her request for an interview, then, a day later, spots her taking a break in an airport saloon. In between, Shine, who's come to London to see his daughter Susan (Liane Balaban) get married, mingles with his ex-wife (Kathy Baker) and the wedding guests like a gefilte fish out of water. He soon receives the ultimate insult - Susan tells him she has asked her stepdad (James Brolin) to give her away.
Walker makes Shine confront his pain and conquer it just as he gets her to acknowledge her need for pleasure. It's our pleasure that goes unfulfilled. Writer-director Hopkins has designed Shine to be disarming to a proper Brit like Walker, but Hoffman plays him as if he's determined to be disarming.
And once Walker puts on a spiffy party dress and bonds like epoxy with Shine, there's nothing for the film to do but end. So Hopkins creates a melodramatic complication straight out of An Affair to Remember - which is not how anyone would describe the relationship at the center of Last Chance Harvey.
This movie is genial, forgettable piffle about the perhaps-beginning of a maybe affair. It's a romantic daydream so slim that it barely leaves the requisite sweet aftertaste.
Last Chance Harvey
(Overture Films) Starring Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins. Directed by Joel Hopkins. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Time 99 minutes.