I'd rather have the rabbit

Okay, I admit, I didn’t want to see Last Chance Harvey in the first place. I knew it was about a romance between two “older” people, meaning older than Zac Efron, which isn’t a bad idea (Dustin Hoffman is 72, Emma Thompson is 50).

But the poster makes Last Chance Harvey look so golden-hued, so sensitive and wry, not to mention “feelgood”, that my heart positively sank at the idea of watching it.

Thus I cannot honestly say I was neutral about this movie when it became obvious, as the swirling fog of the release schedule gradually cleared, that Last Chance Harvey would be the only vaguely reviewable film opening this week. It had been screened already, a while ago, and I asked my fellow critics for their views on it.
The general response was a shrug and “It’s okay ...”

And, yes, Last Chance Harvey may in fact be okay. It may be okay if you want an evening’s undemanding DVD to doze off to. It may be okay if it’s on TV and you can watch it for free. It may be okay if you have absolutely nothing better to do—paring your toenails, say.

Hoffman is the Harvey of the title, and one has to presume it means that this is his last chance at love. Given the nature of Harvey, one is surprised he’s had any chances at all. He’s an ageing composer of advertising jingles, whose job is yanked out from under his feet because, well, he’s just too old and out of touch.

Harvey is on his way to London for his semi-estranged daughter’s wedding. This means he will have to confront the daughter, as well as his ex-wife and her big, successful new husband (played by Jeff Brolin, a good contrast to Hoffman; the wife made the right choice). It’s obvious that this wedding is going to be excruciating for Harvey. And we know how he feels; we’ve seen a few wedding movies.

In the course of his London trip and its attendant mishaps, Harvey meets a woman who works at Heathrow—well, actually, he has bumped into her before they meet properly, and that’s a rather nice little game the movie plays for a bit. Ah, the stars are on the screen together—will this be the moment they actually meet and speak?

Thompson plays Kate, who has a dead-end job, a very demanding widowed mother and the general air of someone leading a life of quiet desperation. Then again, between drudgeries and embarrassments she manages to read a book or two, which is always pleasing to see. I have a fondness for seeing movie characters reading, especially when it requires some determination, like reading while standing on the underground train. And especially when they can read silently to themselves without moving their lips.

I liked Kate. This is an ordinary person who is interesting; it’s probably down to a decently scripted character and the acting skills and simpatica quality Thompson brings to the screen. It’s nice to have a movie about ordinary people, or relatively ordinary people. Thompson brings Kate to life, and you feel for her. But Harvey is a disaster.

Hence this is a movie of one half. That is, one half of the romantic couple we’re supposed to be rooting for is actually a person you can sympathise with. You can understand what Harvey sees in Kate, but you simply cannot fathom what Kate might see in Harvey. He’s supposed to represent a chance for her to break away from her dowdy, circumscribed world, but if I were Kate I think I’d be more tempted to throw my lot in with a homeless person or a serial killer. Or the six-foot rabbit called Harvey who was Jimmy Stewart’s imaginary friend in the 1950 film of that name.

It’s very hard indeed to believe in Hoffman in this role. He becomes increasingly irritating as the movie progresses. Whenever his face snaps into smile mode and his mouth forms a sudden V, you want to slap him. He is not attractive in any way, physically or in personality terms, yet he exudes a certain kind of smugness. Perhaps that’s his way of attempting to be charming, but he is in fact deeply charmless.

I went back to The Graduate (in which the age differential of the lovers is reversed) to find out whether Hoffman had any charm at the start of his movie career, in 1967, when he was a 30-year-old playing a 20-year-old. And, no, he didn’t have any charm even then. You couldn’t, for that matter, imagine that he’d ever been 20 in his life. (And, looking over Hoffman’s CV, it feels like he hasn’t had a substantial role in a really good movie for more than 30 years, with the possible exception of his voice work in Kung Fu Panda.)

Watching Last Chance Harvey, and trying to turn this romance into something credible and bearable, I mentally recast the role of Harvey several times. How about Nick Nolte as a washed-up musician? That would be fun. Perhaps Al Pacino as a recently reformed alcoholic with anger-management issues? Jack Nicholson as a paraplegic war veteran? Robert DeNiro as a retired choreographer with Asperger’s syndrome? And those are just the Americans.

If the script was tweaked to get in an American actor and hence Hollywood money (the writer-director is British), it was to no avail. The idea of an American-British romance, as well as one in which there’s a meaningful age gap between the participants, is not a bad one.

But then you’ve got to do something interesting with it, which Last Chance Harvey fails to do. It just replays the old romantic clichés, including the night-time walk through the city, the clothes-buying montage, and that climactic run of the male lover towards the female (as in The Graduate, for one).

Aha! I’ve got it! Harvey should have been played by Paul Newman.

Oh, he’s dead.

Still an improvement.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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