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Movies | Hoffman and Thompson shine in Last Chance Harvey

Issue: "Schock factor," Jan. 31, 2009

The problem with acting is that when you finally get good at it, you stop getting the fun parts. By the time most performers are the ages of Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson (who is much younger, but then Hollywood isn't fair to girls), they vanish from certain kinds of movies. So it's something of a relief to see Last Chance Harvey, a cute-as-a-button romantic drama (rated PG-13 for some swearing) about two people whose lives haven't turned out quite the way they expected.

Harvey Shine (Hoffman) is, briefly, a loser. His dreams of becoming a jazz pianist are nothing but ashes, and he hasn't been much of a father to his only daughter, who sadly tells him she'll be asking her stepdad to give her away at her wedding. Harvey won't stay for the reception because he has to salvage (maybe) a job he doesn't even like (he's a TV commercial composer). On his way to the wedding in question, he's short with Kate (Thompson), who works for the airline and is trying to hand out a survey.

What starts as an apology turns into an impromptu date, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out who will end up together, whether Harvey will regain his daughter's affection, and whether Harvey will go back to his lousy job. Really, though, griping about the movie's predictability is missing the point. Director Joel Hopkins knows exactly what makes his movie tick, and that's the incredibly subtle performances-in roles that they could easily have phoned in-by his two leads.

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Hopkins fills the screen with his actors' faces as often as possible, and they reward him for it: Every tic and half-smile registers like a note in one of Harvey's unwritten symphonies, and you can see the joy that Harvey takes in a last chance to be charming and fun, right alongside Kate's suspicious pleasure in being wooed long after she'd given up hope. I'm not sure that's in the script, or even in the direction, but it's certainly in the movie, and it's a lovely, uplifting thing to behold.

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