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Monday, April 13, 2009

LAST CHANCE HARVEY -- DVD review by porfle

 My sister would've loved LAST CHANCE HARVEY (2008). For people who get into this kind of stuff, that's all the recommendation it needs. She would've rented it, we would've watched it, I would've been bored stiff, she would've loved it. That's how that worked.

Dustin Hoffman, utilizing roughly the amount of acting talent contained in his left pinky, stars as the title shlub, who writes commercial jingles but is getting pushed out because hey, it's a young man's game. Meanwhile, his daughter is getting married--in England, for some reason--so Harvey has to fly there over the weekend.

 He finds that not only are his ex-wife Jean (Kathy Baker) and estranged daughter not making him a welcome member of the wedding party, but also that the bride-to-be would like for her stepfather Brian (James Brolin) to give her away because she feels closer to him. Ouch! I don't have any kids but even I had to feel that one.

So anyway, Harvey keeps running into this attractive Englishwoman named Kate (Emma Thompson), who's also single and lonely, and he begins to court her. It's all tentative and autumnal and "been burned before", but you don't have to be the Amazing Kreskin to figure out that these two will eventually fall in love. But first, Kate agrees to accompany Harvey to his daughter's wedding reception, where he'll make one last effort to win back her affection and gain some respect.

This is one of those movies that gets described as a "bittersweet romantic comedy", to which I usually react the way vampires react to crosses and garlic. It's not bad, though--in fact, it's quite easy to take, with an excellent cast and a straightforward script that doesn't get bogged down in too much unnecessary mush.

 It's pretty much stripped down to the basics, intercutting the sad but amusing circumstances of the lonely-but-funny Harvey and Kate (slathered with the sort of piano-and-strings music that lets us know how to feel about everything) until they "meet cute" and settle into "getting-to-cutely-know-you" mode. Kate wearily plays hard to get, Harvey wears her down with his hangdog charm--you know the drill.

Writer-director Joel Hopkins makes all of this look very good without intruding. He also displays an admirable ability to keep things free of melodrama and maudlin sentimentality. Emotional scenes between Harvey and his ex-wife and daughter are given just enough weight to make them effective, and what could've been a truly mawkish show-stopper moment--Harvey's butting into Brian's toast at the reception in order to make one of his own--is handled just right.

Not handled so well are certain sequences such as Harvey and Kate looking like total idiots on the dance floor, and a silly earlier scene when Harvey agrees to buy Kate a gown for the party and we get the usual goofy montage of her twirling and prancing around in one stupid outfit after another. Such scenes are a shortcut to establishing Harvey and Kate's growing mutual affection, and come off mainly as a storyteller's crutch.

Also not so great is a subplot about Kate's paranoid mom (Eileen Atkins) constantly fretting over the actions of her new Polish neighbor, whom she suspects of being a serial killer, and a late complication in Harvey and Kate's budding relationship that seems arbitrarily tacked-on.

DVD image and sound quality are good, with 2.35:1 widescreen and Dolby Digital. Extras include a laidback commentary track featuring stars Hoffman and Thompson and director Hopkins. There's also a featurette entitled "An Unconventional Love Story--The Making of Last Chance Harvey" which lasts almost twenty minutes. Trailers for this and other films are included.

Dustin Hoffman can be fascinating to watch, especially when he chooses vehicles that are equally intriguing. And sometimes he does stuff like this, which requires him to exercise about one-tenth of his acting talent. But for what it is, LAST CHANCE HARVEY is the kind of competently-made, impeccably-cast effort that you should find quite enjoyable if the words "bittersweet romantic comedy" don't make you hiss, turn into a bat, and seek refuge in the nearest coffin.


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