Harvey (Dustin Hoffman) is a mess. Fearful he is about to lose his job, he rushes to the airport to catch a plane to London; his daughter is getting married to her fiancée and he can't miss the wedding, his relationship with his daughter is already strained to the point of bursting. When he arrives, he realizes he has been relegated to 'Guest' status and his cell phone continues to ring at inopportune times. But the real blow comes when his daughter announces her step-dad (James Brolin) will give her away. Harvey can't stand it and leaves the wedding before the reception. Returning to Heathrow to miss his flight, he sits down in an airport bar and finds Kate (Emma Thompson), an airport employee enjoying a glass of wine, her nose buried in a new paperback. They strike up a reluctant conversation and Harvey is intrigued. It takes a while, but Kate is just as intrigued and they start to talk and walk around London.
"Last Chance Harvey", written and directed by Joel Hopkins, is a charming romance, a good showcase for the talents of the two leads and a very, very imperfect film saved only by Hoffman and Thompson. Ultimately, it is a nice little bit of fluff that you will no doubt forget. You'll have one of those conversations in a few months. "Did you see that film with Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson?" "No, which one? "Love, Actually"?" "No, Hoffman wasn't in that. The other one."
The saving grace of the film are the performances from Hoffman and Thompson. I read that both insisted there be limited rehearsals, allowing for the characters to improvise and seem even more natural. Hoffman plays Harvey, a real mess of a guy who is about to lose his job and his daughter and makes a real botched effort trying to save his relationship with both. He rushes to London for her wedding, making the return flight for two days later. When he tells his daughter he will miss the reception, it seems to be the final straw and she drops a bombshell on him. Her step-dad will give her away. When she tells Harvey this, you can tell she is heartbroken because her relationship with her dad is so strained. When he hears the news, you can almost see Harvey's heart break, as Hoffman's face registers a wave of emotion, the feelings briefly flashing across his face.
As soon as the wedding is over, he bolts, rushing back to Heathrow, but he also seems relieved to be away from the crushing emotional memories. When he realizes he has missed his flight, he finds himself in a weird purgatory; he can't do anything about his job and doesn't feel like doing anything about his daughter and the disconnect from her life. He slumps into an airport bar and orders a drink. Airport employee Kate (Emma Thompson) is enjoying a meal after her shift and the two begin talking. Kate, younger than Harvey, is intrigued by the American and he offers to walk with her to her next appointment.
Let's backtrack a bit and look at Kate's life for a few moments. She works at Heathrow, managing a group of women who greet incoming passengers and get statistical information for them. Each of the women she works with desperately wants her to find a companion, so much so that one of them asks her to go out on a blind date. She and her boyfriend will be there, so she doesn't have anything to worry about. But Kate's life, and her love life in particular, are hampered by her mom (Eileen Atkins), a needy single woman who seems to have her finger poised above speed dial at all times. She calls Kate constantly and interrupts many conversations she has with others, including potential mates. The blind date doesn't go well and Kate becomes particularly unhappy. But she puts on a stiff upper lip and goes to work and continues to deal with her mom, bottling up her emotions and pushing on.
What makes this work, and elevates the material above television movie status, are the performances from the two leads. Both Hoffman and Thompson are such good actors that when they receive material like this, they know how to make every moment seem real and believable. Hoffman really seems to lose himself inn the role and we see fifty years of Harvey's life factor into every conversation and decision he has and makes throughout the film. When he arrives in London and takes a taxi to the hotel, he calls his daughter. "Where are all of you?" "Oh. Your mom rented a house." "No, I'm OK. I'll be fine here." We don't need to hear the other side of the conversation to see all of the pain and conflict Harvey experiences or to understand the thoughts racing through his head as he tries to make his daughter feel OK. Why couldn't your mom put her feelings aside for a few days and include me in this momentous part of your life? Why couldn't you say something about it? But I love you too much to make a fuss and will stay put here at the hotel.
In every scene, Hoffman does similar things with Harvey, revealing new things about him, his relationship with his ex and his daughter, about his life. Each of these revelations is revealed through facial expressions, or the lack of, brief little looks, his eyes, and body language. What is really interesting about this character is that Hoffman reveals so much by contradicting what Harvey is saying with little movements, or ticks, or gestures that tell us he is trying to make everyone else feel OK and he doesn't care about his feelings and wants his daughter to think everything is OK.
Thompson is Hoffman's equal and she brings as much depth and interest to her character, Kate. We get the sense there is great pain in Kate because her ever present smile seems greatly strained, ready to plaster a smile across her face to keep her mom from asking too many questions and to keep her co-workers and friends from getting too involved in her life.
When Kate and Harvey meet, each seems to loosen a little bit and Kate's defenses seem to crumble. She is intrigued by the forward American and agrees to walk with him. Each time she tries to pull away, he insists that they continue walking or talking and she gives in. What makes this so poignant is that she doesn't really put up a fight. She is merely protesting for appearances sake.
As they walk and talk, Kate learns a lot about Harvey, and vice versa, and what brought him to this stage. She asks "Is the reception still going on?" And he immediately decides to ask her to go. As they spend more and more time together, they realize the unconventional aspects of their relationship, everything that should make it not work, are the reasons they are each intrigued by the budding relationship.
It is really a delight to watch two actors, each so accomplished in their craft, at the top of their skills, create two people who are so intrigued by one another.
There is a subplot involving Kate's mom (Eileen Atkins), which seems wasted. She is a big part of Kate's life and calls her on a constant basis. Then, she begins to have suspicions about a new neighbor. These moments seem to point to a fairly funny subplot. When that part of the story fails to payoff, you have to wonder what was the point in investing so much time in this character. It seems misleading somehow.
And the film has a very small scope. This isn't a bad thing, in and of itself, but when you begin to experience the depth of Hoffman and Thompson's performances, you begin to hope for more. Eileen Atkins' character promises something funny, but when this fails to materialize, what else is there? Because so much of the film concentrates on the two characters, it begins to feel like a film adapted from a play. We have seen films adapted from plays before. Some seem better than the play because they take advantage of the new medium, film, and present a story more expansive than the original material. And others seem too restricted by the source material, presenting many dialogues between two or three characters, never leaving the confines of a 'stage'. When a film that wasn't based on a play seems like it was, that is a problem.
And this problem makes the otherwise enjoyable "Last Chance Harvey" problematic.