Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson’s Love Song for London!

Last Chance Harvey
Running time: 92 minutes
Written and directed by Joel Hopkins
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, James Brolin, Kathy Baker, Richard Schiff, Liane Balaban, Elieen Atkins

Joel Hopkins’ Last Chance Harvey, from his own screenplay, transforms its low-key litany of two transatlantic losers, Dustin Hoffman’s Harvey Shine and Emma Thompson’s Kate, into a passionate love song for London as we’ve never seen it before, indeed as if it were Paris. It helps that it is a down-on-his-luck American like Harvey Shine who finds salvation in a kind and understanding Brit like Kate even though she stands larger and taller than her forlorn American admirer. They look a little strange walking together, even in a post-feminist era before which the Hollywood studios made sure that short men with big heads like Humphrey Bogart in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) and Alan Ladd in Jean Negulesco’s Boy on a Dolphin (1957) were not visually dwarfed by Amazonian actresses like Ingrid Bergman and Sophia Loren, respectively. Of course, Mr. Hoffman has had prior experience looking up at his leading lady, as with the even more towering Vanessa Redgrave in Michael Apted’s Agatha (1979).

When we first encounter Harvey, he is on the verge of losing an unenviable job writing jingles for an advertising firm. His boss (Richard Schiff) is making ominous comments about exciting new young people coming into the company presumably to do better at what Harvey has been doing all these years. When Harvey tells the boss that he is flying to London over the weekend for the marriage of his only daughter (Liane Balaban) to another American, the boss warns him that he’d better be back for an important Monday morning meeting or face the dire consequences.

At the same time, in alternating scenes with Kate in London, we see that she is working in the same sort of dead-end job interviewing arriving passengers on incoming flights at Heathrow for a statistics company. In her spare time, she goes on fruitless blind dates, in between being continually badgered by her mother (Eileen Atkins) about Kate’s lack of a husband. When Kate tries to interview Harvey on his arrival at Heathrow, he brusquely dismisses her and rushes off to baggage claim. She then makes a point of yelling after him that he is being rude. Not exactly an example of meeting cute.

When Harvey arrives at the hotel to which he has been assigned, he discovers that he is the only member of the wedding party booked at the hotel. Everyone else has been quartered at an enormous mansion rented by his daughter’s wealthy stepfather (James Brolin), and it is then that we discover that Harvey has been divorced by his wife (Kathy Baker), and he has not seen his daughter since her childhood. When he finally joins his daughter and ex-wife at the wedding rehearsal, he is jolted by the news that his daughter has decided to let her stepfather rather than her father give her away to the groom. Harvey is so disappointed by his daughter’s decision that after sadly witnessing the wedding he decides to leave the reception early so that he can be sure to catch his plane back to New York. But because of a citywide traffic jam, he misses his flight. When he calls to explain and apologize, his boss tells him he is fired.

After this final blow to his self-esteem, Harvey goes to the airport bar for a much needed drink. There he encounters Kate, licking her wounds after her latest humiliating blind date. She is busy reading a book, but having recognized her from their brief collision at the airport, he playfully coaxes her to smile. Much of the fun of the movie comes from the badinage exchanged between two powerful screen personalities pretending to be losers. He persuades her to let him take her home to meet her mother, and they begin to tell each other their life stories. When Harvey tells Kate that he left his daughter’s wedding reception early, Kate insists that he return to it. But when Harvey stipulates that he’ll go if Kate goes with him, she points at her work clothes as inappropriate for the occasion, and a reason to refuse his invitation. Harvey offers to buy her a new dress, and she accepts his offer.

At this point, so many things could go wrong, and don’t because of the mutual respect shared by the real father and the stepfather, and the quietly sensitive understanding of Harvey by his hitherto estranged wife and daughter. In these times of institutionalized bad manners onscreen and off, it is refreshing to see a movie smoothly returning to an age of courtesy and courtliness leavened by wit and genuine sincerity.

The suspense is generated by sudden spasms of vulnerability and infirmity, and one calculated complication in the plot to prolong the very slender romance. Fortunately, Mr. Hoffman, now past 70, and Ms. Thompson, inching toward 50, still retain enough buoyancy to keep the picture afloat. And the rest of the cast kicks in with flawless ensemble support, especially the sublime Eileen Atkins, who makes her comedy relief, as the unexpectedly susceptible mother, the frosting on the cake.

asarris@observer.com Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson’s Love Song for London!