The Golden Globes people actually did something right for a change: They nominated Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson as best actor and best actress in a comedy for Last Chance Harvey. The movie itself, written and directed by Joel Hopkins, is so light a whisper could blow it away. But acting this richly funny and touching is too good to resist.
Hoffman, in his best screen performance since 1997’s Wag the Dog, plays Harvey Shine, a New York jingle writer barely holding on to his job. Even worse for the divorced Harvey is his arrival in London to attend the wedding of his estranged daughter (Liane Balaban). His ex-wife (Kathy Baker) and her tall, annoyingly handsome husband (James Brolin) smile brightly and do everything they can to lower the already chilly temperature between father and daughter, who announces her stepfather will be the one to give her away.
After being odd man out at the rehearsal dinner, Harvey is ready to chuck it and head back to Manhattan. That’s when he meets Kate Walker, a survey taker at Heathrow Airport who persuades Harvey to stay in London for the reception. The act of persuasion, coming after some sly, charmingly nasty give-and-take between the American and the Londoner at a bar, is a lesson in the seamless blend of acting styles.
After a shopping expedition for Harvey and his insistence that Kate accompany him to the reception, the movie hits a comic peak when Harvey and Kate are seated at the kids’ table. The emotional high point comes when Harvey interrupts the toasts to make a toast himself. Hoffman reportedly wrote much of the speech, a poignant blend of joy and regret, and he delivers it with the timing and subtlety expected from an actor audiences have taken to since The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy. And when cuteness and contrivance get too much, as in the film’s ending, the radiant Thompson can be counted on to put a tart spin on sentiment. British director Hopkins likes to mix it up, playing the romance old school (Brief Encounter) and new (Before Sunset). He does well. But Hoffman and Thompson work the necessary magic. It’s the pleasure of their company that makes this an affair to remember.