Last Chance Harvey is the kind of movie that probably wouldn't get much attention if it were released at any other time in the year. An unambitious romance aimed at grown-ups, it deserves the handful of champions it will find, but probably not the Oscar campaign it's heading into. Featuring a lovely performance from Emma Thompson, with slightly less impressive Dustin Hoffman in the title role, it's a small movie of simple pleasures that's easily forgotten when it's over.
The heavy-handed title refers at first to a deal Harvey is trying to work out with the music recording studio that employs him. Just before he heads off to London to see his estranged daughter (Liane Balaban) get married, his hard-nosed boss (Richard Schiff) hints that he shouldn't bother to hurry back. Harvey, not getting the clue, rushes awkwardly through the rehearsal dinner and ceremony, alienated by his ex-wife (Kathy Baker), her suave new husband (James Brolin) and even his daughter, who asks her stepdad to walk her down the aisle. Skipping the reception to get to the airport, he gets one more cell phone call from the boss to tell him, pointedly, that he's fired.
In the meantime we're also spending time with Kate (Thompson), who spends much of her life fielding phone calls from her loony mother, who's convinced her neighbor is a serial killer. As Harvey suffers through the rehearsal dinner, Kate bumbles through a blind date set up by a co-worker at the airport census office. The date goes badly, of course, so when Kate runs into Harvey in the airport bar the next day, they both have something to complain about.
Harvey's flight is delayed until the next day, Kate helps him find a hotel, he accompanies her to her writing class, and gradually these two middle-agers have the kind of whirlwind, up-all-night romance more familiar to teenagers. The night is mostly devoted to helping Harvey work things out, as the new couple attends the wedding reception after all and harvey gets to make the father toast. Kate, despite both Thompson's and writer-director Joel Hopkins' efforts to make her a well-developed character, unfortunately falls into the "supportive female" stock character trap.
When the sun comes up there are obvious obstacles Kate and Harvey need to deal with-- the distance between New York and London being just one of them-- but Hopkins instead throws in an emergency room visit to create third-act drama. It doesn't necessarily betray the movie's emotional honesty up to that point, but it is a fairly cheap trick for what's otherwise a mature and low-key film.
As the central character who goes through the movie's main arc, Hoffman is a bit of a letdown. He's good as Harvey the beaten-down schlub, as well as Harvey in the flush of new romance, but the transition between the two doesn't exist. Thompson is empathetic and lovely, as ever, but she's not helped by the script or her hammy co-star. Last Chance Harvey offers many pleasures that may be overshadowed by the high expectations that come with a December 26 release date. It's a shame, but this is the kind of movie probably destined to perform better on DVD anyway.