Is there a film critic’s superstition that the first film you see in a year will determine if the rest of the film year is good or bad? Oh, I hope not. That’s because only one word comes to mind when I think about Last Chance Harvey: phony. Starting with its overly precious title (His name is Harvey. It’s his last chance), this tale of a music man blares false note after false note. Not one seems emotionally honest.
It comes to a crescendo when one character slumps in a stairwell with chest pain. I should feel more ashamed to say that I haven’t laughed that hard at a heart attack in years. I have to ask, why do screenwriters think so little of advertising jobs? They might be imperfect, but they give artistic people a way to make a living creatively. And it’s not exactly jackhammer work on the road team.
Nonetheless, Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) has a sad, lonely existence as a commercial jingle writer. He always wanted to be a jazz pianist, but come on, how many jazz pianists look like the graduate? So how is this for a bad day? When Harvey goes to London for his daughter’s wedding, she tells him she wants her step-father to give her away. He skips the reception but misses his flight home. Then he gets fired. When Hoffman recites this litany to a stranger in an airport bar, it sounds suspiciously like a screenwriter’s exercise in character development.
That stranger turns out to be Kate Walker (Emma Thompson) a survey taker at the airport. Of course, she’s the lone good thing to happen to him that day. She’s a runner and not a walker when it comes to men. She’s too busy dating and taking care of her mother to date and marry. Soon she’s leading him around London, healing family wounds, and bringing Harvey back to life.
So what do I mean by ringing emotionally false? Take the whole wedding. I don’t have a daughter, but I think if my non-existent daughter asked I would think I would be irretrievably wounded. But all it takes here is a conciliatory speech at the reception and, hey, potential lifelong wounds blow over. The film is filled with such implausible details, aiming for an emotional delicacy that turns to sap.