An unusual message of hope is woven into “Last Chance Harvey,” a romantic confection charting the wobbly first steps toward love of a strikingly mismatched couple portrayed by Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. Sure, this purveyor of comforting, shopworn formulas tells us that love can find us in the most unexpected places, that it can raise us from the depths of despair to the pinnacle of joy, that its course does not run smooth. But it also tells us that weariness, defeat and general dilapidation all are real assets when it comes to wooing. Given the endless supply of gloomy prognostications, corporate collapse and foreclosed opportunities lately, “Last Chance Harvey” may truly be a love story for our frazzled times.
Harvey (Hoffman) has come down in the world, having never risen very far in it to begin with. A composer of jingles who once dreamed of being a jazz pianist, and who has seen even the humble art of the jingle eclipsed by soundscapes and aural environments whose construction he oversees with heavy heart, Harvey is a study in thoroughgoing bedragglement. Schlepping his luggage about London while vainly trying to hide the unremoved anti-theft tag on his suit, he looks like Everyman on the bum.
Like “It's a Wonderful Life,” in fact, “Last Chance Harvey” settles in for a long spell of tearing its protagonists down. Having flown to London to witness the marriage of his semi-estranged daughter to a man he barely knows, Harvey has his first glancing encounter with Kate Walker (Thompson) at the airport, where her job is to cajole exiting passengers into filling out questionnaires. As if this tame task weren't enough to depress her, she has a very lonely, slightly addled mother who bombards her with calls as regularly as Big Ben strikes. These interruptions prove especially irksome when, to Kate's chagrin, her misguided friends force her into a blind date with a much younger man, who wastes no time scouring the bar they're in for hipsters his own age to come and save him.
But if Kate is no stranger to humiliation, Harvey seems set on a course to become a true Olympian in feats of abasement. His ex-wife (Kathy Baker) is not only living large — she's hosting extravagant, transatlantic nuptials — but her adorable silver-fox hubby (a honey-tongued James Brolin) has replaced Harvey in his daughter's heart. After a few hours in London, Harvey knows himself to be an almost wholly extraneous man.
Only once the film has established Kate and Harvey as near basket cases does it allow them to meet properly, in an unglamorous airport bar, where Harvey begins to pay his tentative court to a half-unwilling, slightly creeped-out Kate.
Here let it be mentioned that when Benjamin Braddock was stealing the nation's heart in “The Graduate” (1967), Emma Thompson was every bit of 8 years old (Hoffman was 30 when the film was released). Yet, despite the film's alarmist title, the whole question of age gets barely a mention in “Last Chance Harvey,” although any sane person would realize that if the tentative lovers ever did get together, Kate, in the prime of life, would essentially be signing on for the role of Harvey's caregiver.
But never mind. There are pleasures to be had from this film, yet they will escape you if you allow yourself to get hung up on things you would point out to this pair if either were your friend — impediments like the Atlantic Ocean or their complete lack of romantic chemistry. Thompson and Hoffman never make their characters seem like anything other than potentially jolly good pals, but, with performers this skilled and cozily familiar, we enjoy the result. Without them the picture would likely be revealed as the string of banalities it ultimately is.
Writer and director Joel Hopkins, however, seems wisely to have given his lead players more or less free rein to make of each scene what they would, so of course these practiced charmers wring every effect they can think of from the corny material thrown their way. If the leads don't really seem to be romancing each other, it's because they're so busy working on us, breaking down our resistance until in spite of the silliness on screen we have to admit we like them. We really, really like them. (PG-13) 92 min. HHIII S