There’s never a doubt that the losers-at-love of British writer-director Joel Hopkins’ “Last Chance Harvey” are on intersecting arcs, that they’ll meet cute and stroll off into a sooty London sunset. But stars Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson (reunited after 2006’s “Stranger Than Fiction”) are so disarmingly charming that even the most treacly moments work an emotional magic. Auds may skew a bit older for the Overture Films release, but the hardest cases will be moved and tell their friends.
Some couples just look good together. Thompson and Hoffman look like an exclamation point walking a hedgehog. The physical incompatibility gives them added personality, but it also emphasizes the innate awkwardness that has found their characters alone at middle age.
Hoffman, walking around the margins of physical grace like an aerialist, is failing music-jingle writer Harvey Shine, who’s in London for the wedding of his estranged daughter (Liane Balaban) and couldn’t be more transparently unhappy with himself. It’s in the way he moves, the way he makes us cringe. When he encounters his ex-wife (Kathy Baker), her husband (James Brolin) and the rest of their extended clan, he and the audience realize what an outsider to real life Harvey has become.
Not so Thompson’s Kate Walker, a bookish, would-be writer with a needy mother (Eileen Atkins) and a job that involves polling passengers at Heathrow, many of whom are tired and rude. These include Harvey, whose arrival in London marks his and Kate’s first near-collision; another occurs when a saddened, drunken Harvey gets out of a cab just as Kate gets in (it’s a well-executed moment by Hopkins, even if you can’t quite believe he’s gone there).
When Harvey is told by daughter Susan that she’s chosen her stepfather to walk her down the aisle, a crushed Harvey decides to cut his visit short and get back to his tenuous job in New York. But traffic holds him up, he misses his flight and his boss (Richard Schiff) fires him over the phone.
This leads to the pivotal scene: an airport bar, a few Johnny Walkers, a beautiful Kate reading a novel — banter, smiling insults, less emotional reticence than a Nora Ephron movie. And we’re off to the emotional races.
“Last Chance Harvey” looks terrific, thanks to John de Borman’s lensing, and so does London, though Hopkins steers clear of most of the obvious landmarks (no Big Ben or London Eye). He tends to place Harvey and Kate in a younger, more upscale, more go-go city — namely, one that symbolizes a life that might be leaving them behind.
A wedding and a blind date provide the perfect settings to illustrate their frustrated romantic selves: Harvey stumbles through his daughter’s rehearsal dinner solo, ultimately looking like a fool; Kate goes out with a guy who doesn’t have the grace to get rid of his friends when they join him and Kate at their table. Harvey and Kate are surrounded by humanity, but it’s cruelly oblivious to them. They would be perfectly happy to be as self-absorbed as everyone around them; they just can’t seem to do it. So they get absorbed in each other instead.
Hoffman makes the most of everything he’s given in Hopkins’ script, mining laughs from even the least obvious places. Thompson has a less obviously gratifying task — imbuing Kate with pathos without pity — and the actress maintains a lovable if occasionally bruised dignity throughout.
A subplot in which Kate’s mother makes incessant phone calls to Kate, while spying on a neighbor she suspects of being serial killer, provides some needed levity; Atkins, as always, is superb. But the heart of the film is its love story, with two characters it’s very easy to care about.
Production values are top-notch.