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Harvey’s Chances December 16, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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The other night I got to attend a freebie screening of the January release Last Chance Harvey starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, and it turned out okay – nothing spectacular here, but certainly far above the level of the current genre known as the dreaded date movie. As a single guy (I’m sure you’re SHOCKED to discover that no woman has snapped up this fine specimen of a man waiting for her income to support him) the only way I see movies like this is if I get dragged to them at the insistence of a woman, where I’d better go along to (a) avoid the nagging and (b) try (& fail) once again for the Captain Sensitive award. But I guess now I can also include a (c) category of attendance, which is: IT WAS FREE & NOT A LONG DRIVE.

When I think of the recent swath of date/chick movies I inevitably come back to Twenty Seven Dresses, something I watched on an airplane with no sound, yet was able to follow to the letter, and not because I’m a lip reader. I’m more of a Hollywood formula movie reader, and as much as Katherine Heigl (who has the same birthday as me! Yay!) was certainly eye-candy in this thing, the story looked amazingly lame, predictable, and totally based around the idea that your life is essentially unfulfilled unless you have a really really big wedding with an announcement in the New York Times‘ society pages.

The nice thing about Last Chance Harvey, even though it contains a wedding, is that the film focuses instead on simply the first connections made between two lonely and somewhat damaged people and how they have to work to overcome the carefully constructed walls they’ve made to cut themselves off from other people & the possible emotional hurt that would ensue lest things go wrong. Emma Thompson pulls this angle off better than Hoffman, who goes from some rather forced comic moments depicting his schlemielosity one minute to being glib, carefree and spontaneous the next. Hoffman’s usual acting technique of non-reaction to those around him doesn’t work too well here – it’s only in moments when he actually faces other people that his character comes alive, and it makes the switches between the comic-loser type moments and the free spirit ones all the more artificial.

Thompson’s character has absorbed the emotional damage her mother has felt from her own broken marriage and passively-aggresses her way out of becoming close to people. Hoffman is older, failing at his job as a jingle-writer (which we learn was his failure trophy for not becoming a jazz artist) & traveling to London for his daughter’s wedding, where the family has basically frozen him out for not being there for years – the stepfather played by a rather studly James Brolin will give her away (after all, he was “PW”), something that makes Hoffman attempt to rush back to New York, only to miss his plane and cross paths with Thompson.

While the movie’s first half hour intercuts their two respective stories, juxtaposing each of their alienation from those around them and throwing in some “they almost meet!” bits, when they finally DO start chatting and flirting and melting each other’s defenses, they wander around London getting to know each other in some pleasant scenes before Hoffman gets up the courage to return to the wedding reception and have a redemptive moment with his family. Thompson’s character is actually more interesting, but she really doesn’t get to do much here besides getting to be the mature supportive woman, and there are a couple of clichéd things thrown into the mix – a try-on-the-dress montage and a “Oh NO! He’ll NEVER have this shot AGAIN!” plot contrivance – that take away from what in many respects is a breath of fresh air – a movie about actual adults and the way they might behave towards each other, casually told and without a pat ending. I guess I could recommend this movie as a date-movie for the (ahem) older crowd. See it right after you finish the “early bird,” but don’t stay out too late, even if you’re TiVoing Matlock

The overriding theme of the movie is summed up, really, by the coda of a comic sub-plot involving Thompson’s mother’s suspicions of her neighbor being a serial killer – when she finally loses her irrational fears of the stranger and actually speaks to him, it encapsulates the entire film: What happens if people simply drop their defenses and simply talk to one another?

So obviously, this movie’s lesson is totally lost on me. Why the hell would anyone want to do that?

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