Joel Hopkins’ ‘Last Chance Harvey’ (2008)


Last Chance Harvey may follow the comfortable formula of a romantic comedy, but it ends up being something more than just another rom-com, and not only because Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson happen to be several decades older than the usual leading actors of these movies. Though the mere presence of actors like Hoffman and Thompson would elevate the caliber of most films, Last Chance Harvey succeeds because of its measured script that doesn’t try to be too cute or too funny, and instead allows the actors to develop Harvey and Kate into complicated, fully realized characters.

Writer-director Joel Hopkins’ script borrows a bit from Richard Linklater’s wonderful Before Sunrise in which two twenty-somethings meet on a train and spend one romantic day together in Vienna, knowing that they will most likely never see each other again. Like Linklater’s twenty-somethings, Harvey and Kate get to know each other walking around a city for a day and talking. But despite the notion of last chances that floats throughout the film, Kate and Harvey’s time together doesn’t have the same sense of urgency as the younger couple’s. When they first meet, Harvey is supposed to be on a plane back to the United States the next morning, but he cancels his flight partway through the film. However, their relationship similarly seems to exist in a liminal space because they interact only in public venues.

Indeed, these characters’ lives seem to take place in liminal spaces. In Harvey’s case, he is insecure at his job, doesn’t really have a place in his family, and during the film he is a visitor in a foreign country, staying in a hotel apart from the other wedding guests. When Harvey enters a non-liminal space, namely his daughter’s wedding events, he feels out of place and feels as though he is an embarrassment to his daughter and his ex-wife. Kate struggles to separate her life from her mother’s. She seems to spend more time at her mother’s home than her own, in fact I’m not sure that Kate is ever shown in her home, and is constantly screening her phone calls. She works in an airport, a huge place of transition where she isn’t in much danger of forming many lasting relationships. She also reads a lot, escaping into her head and into books. Even though they both exist in the liminal, they pull each other into the non-liminal with Kate convincing Harvey to go to his daughter’s reception and Harvey asking Kate not to leave when she tries to slip out of the party.

I worried a little when the “misunderstanding that jeopardizes the relationship” seemed to be Harvey having a heart attack. I thought, “Oh no. He’s going to nearly die. Here comes the maudlin.” But I was both pleased and surprised when Harvey didn’t almost die, he didn’t even have a life-changing moment because of an unexpected heart attack. He simply hadn’t taken medication for his arrhythmia. Ultimately, that misunderstanding isn’t even significant as a crisis to Harvey and Kate’s relationship, rather that incident acts as a vehicle for Kate to confront emotions that have kept her from connecting with people.

The only major change that I would make to the film is that the first act should have been considerably shortened. The movie really starts to pick up when Kate and Harvey meet so it would have behooved Hopkins to make that happen more quickly. Hopkins tries too hard to make Harvey seem like a sad sack: he’s on the outs at work, no one will talk to him on the airplane, his window blind is broken, he wasn’t invited to stay with the rest of the wedding party, his daughter wants her stepfather to give her away… I think all of that could have been conveyed more simply and in a more expedient fashion. Harvey’s daughter telling him about the step-dad giving her away on the day before her wedding felt particularly forced. Wouldn’t Harvey notice that he hadn’t been invited to the wedding rehearsal? The father of the bride is usually there for that.

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson’s acting is, as to be expected, first-rate. Supposedly Hopkins wanted to cast them opposite each other after seeing them in a play together, but their chemistry is also apparent in their few joint scenes in Marc Forster’s excellent Stranger Than Fiction. I also found Hoffman’s chemistry with Liane Balaban equally enjoyable. Hoffman and Balaban give a fragility to Harvey and his daughter Susan’s interactions, and neither strays into the tired dynamic of the failed father who tries too hard and the embittered abandoned daughter. These actors manage to convey the twenty-odd years of Susan and Harvey’s relationship in the first few minutes of their first scene together.

Hoffman and Thompson are 22 years apart in age and three inches apart in height. Both of these facts receive a mention during the course of the film, though I wish the latter hadn’t. If not for an extremely annoying couple sitting behind me in the theater who alternately narrated and tried to guess the plot of the film, I wouldn’t have really noticed that Thompson is a good five inches taller than Hoffman when wearing high heels. Well, I might have noticed, but it wouldn’t have seemed strange to me if the annoying couple hadn’t proclaimed, “She towers over him!” whenever Hoffman and Thompson were shown next to each other. I applaud Hopkins for not attempting to make Hoffman look taller than he is and for the bulk of the film Harvey seems untroubled wooing a woman who “towers” over him. However, in the last scene Kate removes her high heels and says, “That’s better,” to which Harvey responds with something like, “You’re my kind of girl.” Kate taking off her shoes seems to have more to do with her own comfort than making herself shorter for Harvey’s sake, which is actually a subtle, fitting conclusion to Kate’s story arc. Kate is constantly sacrificing her own comfort for others, so it’s nice to see her do something small for herself, ignoring the social norms that discourage her. Maybe Harvey’s comment is directed toward her walking barefoot in public, but I doubt it. I wish that we could move away from the expectation that men be bigger, taller, and stronger than their female love interests. And stop doctoring movie posters to make it look like men are bigger, taller, and stronger when they really aren’t.


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