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Star power can’t save ‘Last Chance Harvey’

The Observer | Monday, January 26, 2009

Sometimes, when two big stars come together, there’s instant movie magic. The inexact science of film chemistry is hard to find but easy to recognize – it takes a duo like Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, for example, to turn a film about AOL users into “You’ve Got Mail.”

Hollywood legends are often born of the best star duos: Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland are a few.

But sometimes, despite the star power of the two actors involved, a pair falls a little flat. Claire Forlani and Brad Pitt are both strong actors, but “Meet Joe Black” was a depressing dud. Debra Messing is a solid comedienne, but she and Dermot Mulroney (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) couldn’t spark a compelling romance in “The Wedding Date.”

The stars of “Last Chance Harvey,” Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, shouldn’t have this problem. Thompson is almost criminally underused in the film as Kate Walker, a lonely survey worker who spends her days at London’s Heathrow Airport in a frumpy uniform, well-aged scrunchy and sad-eyed expression. Hoffman is perpetually uncomfortable as Harvey Shine, a lonely American who takes a chance on a serendipitous weekend in foggy old London with Thompson’s Kate.

But despite both Hoffman and Thompson being cinematic heavyweights, the pairing never clicks. It’s due to both actors’ talent that the film works at all, but the result is an underwhelming 92 minutes of two people who deserve better material.

Harvey Shine is, by conventional standards, a loser. His job as a commercial music composer is hanging by a thread. His youthful ambition to be a jazz pianist has clearly fallen to the wayside. And his daughter Susan (Liane Balaban) just asked her stepfather, Brian (James Brolin), to walk her down the aisle at her posh London wedding. When he skips Susan’s reception to fly home and nail a critical business deal, he misses the plane and subsequently loses his job.

It’s a tough situation for what Hoffman makes out to be a sympathetic character. Quiet but direct, sometimes smooth but painfully awkward, Harvey barely fits into the new life his daughter and ex-wife are living without him. It’s interesting to watch Hoffman play with another side of American masculinity, calling to mind both his performance in “Death of a Salesman” and his iconic role in “The Graduate,” as though Harvey were an older Ben Braddock with something of a Willy Loman complex.

Simultaneously, writer-director Joel Hopkins gives us Kate, a woman whose friends set her up on blind dates with younger men, and whose mother’s incessant phone calls inevitably ruin whatever semblance of a dating life she has left. Thompson is a smart, funny actress, and it’s odd to watch her play an uncomfortable frumpster. Still, she handles the role with her usual ease, and her presence really makes the film.

The setting of “Last Chance Harvey,” ironically enough, is the character who deserves better material the most. The city of London barely appears in a film that allegedly takes place there. While the film’s advertising would lead a viewer to believe that Britain’s capitol plays its own part, the reality is more disappointing – even though Paddington Bear makes a cameo.

The cinematographer succeeds at capturing each day’s waning light – a subtle play on the film’s themes of life’s passage and late opportunities.

It’s fitting, then, that the film ends on an optimistic sunny morning, with Harvey and Kate walking by the River Thames.

But with a script that only occasionally reaches real heights – watch for Harvey’s speech at the wedding reception – audiences are left wondering where a better film might have taken these two actors.