A film so mild-mannered it only occasionally registers a pulse, Joel Hopkins' Last Chance Harvey is best viewed as proof that not all filmed entertainment these days is nihilistic and grim. Occasionally there are still movies made about gentle, middle-aged people who have had a (mildly) hard time of things but still manage to find love in the gloaming of their years. The problem here being that mildness of heart does not translate into quality of art, or even entertainment.
The Hallmark-ready story begins with Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman), a borderline jerk of a guy who appears to have shut down on life by the time we find him. A jingle writer who once hoped for greater things musically, he's on his way to London where his daughter is marrying into a family that seems to have a greater affinity for his ex-wife's new husband than himself. Article continues below
Set up on the y-axis of the meet-cute diagram is Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), a woman of depressed disposition who works at Heathrow when she's not fielding phone calls from a batty and lonely mother. Kate is the sort of character who is always being pushed into romance by co-workers who worry about her, but is sick of being disappointed by love, so would just rather stick with a good book and give the love a pass.
After far too long a setup, in which both Kate and Harvey (but particularly Harvey) undergo a series of increasingly uncomfortable humiliations, the two are finally tossed together in the same airport restaurant. Kate is getting over a particularly painful blind date experience, while Harvey has just left the wedding early to fly back to New York for work, only to find out that there's no job waiting for him anyway. And his flight was cancelled. Harvey does the logical thing: start drinking and flirt with the attractive woman reading a book over a lonely salad.
The budding romantic interlude that follows would have been easier to swallow had writer/director Hopkins not spent so much time establishing Harvey as an exceedingly unpleasant brand of jerk. Kate seems perfectly fine, a nice woman who has simply had a run of bad luck; it's no wonder that an exhausted and at-wit's-end man would fall for her. But the witty, intensely romantic Harvey who emerges after his moment of crisis is so unrecognizable from the self-centered guy who had so recently inhabited his skin that it's a hard transformation to swallow.
Hopkins establishes an unhurried mood early on, and so it's comparatively easy to watch Harvey and Kate wander the streets of London -- a strange place in the film's world, where Paddington Station appears to be a stone's throw from the Thames -- and bat light humor and mild flirtations back and forth. But the film is too light a creation to make believable their sudden infatuation, burying the glimmers of romance underneath schmaltz and manufactured obviousness.
Having both been relegated for too long to the status of prominently credited quality supporting actors, it's wonderful for both Hoffman and Thompson that they are allowed to take hold of the screen and leave nobody with any doubts that they are stars in every sense of the word. Of course, it would have been nice had they chosen a better vehicle for such an endeavor, but you can't have everything in life.