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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Harvey in Last Chance Harvey is Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman), a real sad sack if ever there was one. He's still reeling from his divorce years earlier, his job as a commercial jingle writer is in jeopardy, and his daughter has asked her stepfather to walk her down the aisle during her upcoming wedding. It is perhaps this last thing that bothers him the most, as it forces him to face the fact that he perhaps was not the stellar father he wanted to be.

While in London for said wedding, Harvey meets Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), a lonely census taker tasked with the thankless job of trying to survey people at the airport. Kate's friends try to set her up on blind dates, which go about as well as they can, which is to say not well at all. In many ways, she seems to have resigned herself to being on her own. The situation doesn't thrill her, but that's just how the cards have fallen.

Harvey and Kate meet cute in the airport bar. They bicker a little at first, then the bickering evolves into flirting. They share a meal together and, later, a walk. As they stroll through London, they talk about their lives: the ups and downs, the victories and the disappointments. And what do you know - they find some common ground. The attraction is undeniable, yet it comes with a few sticking points. If Harvey does not get back to his job by Monday morning, he's fired. There's also the issue of his daughter's wedding. He feels a little humiliated by it all. Kate encourages him to step up to the plate. Harvey, in turn, encourages her to open up a little more, to find love by being willing to let it in.

If Last Chance Harvey sounds kind of like Richard Linklater's great Before Sunrise with older actors, that's because it essentially is. Like that earlier film, the "plot" mostly consists of two people walking and talking. However, in both cases, what those two people say and what they reveal to each other is enough to keep viewers hooked. Pictures like this fascinate me because they demonstrate the power of dialogue. You don't necessarily need to see explosions, chases, shootouts, moments of broad physical comedy, or demons popping out to be entertained. Get good actors to play three-dimensional characters with interesting things to talk about and you can have yourself a good film.

While by no means coming up with anything new to add to the romantic comedy format, Last Chance Harvey does at least put a spin on the traditional template. It does so by - gasp! - actually daring to be about middle-aged people. We've seen the generic Kate Hudson/Matthew McConaughey or Hugh Grant/Whoever romcoms. Here is one where the characters have experienced life and have had real problems. Harvey is divorced, creatively burned out, and shamed by his unfulfilling relationship with his daughter. Kate has battled rejection and one or two other traumatic life events that I don't want to reveal here. Their life experiences give weight to their tenuous relationship. If they can find a way to work it out, their meeting could also be their salvation; if they can't, it could be one more devastation. Writer/director Joel Hopkins nicely conveys all the stuff that hangs in the balance emotionally for these two semi-damaged individuals. So while the story may be familiar, Last Chance Harvey tells it with uncommon maturity, really making us feel how these two adults overcome their issues to find a second chance at love.

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson are, as you'd expect, terrific in their roles. Even during stretches of predictability, they sell the movie. Thompson brings a charmingly daft quality to Kate, as though the woman occasionally catches herself daring to dream big, only to pull back as an act of self-preservation. Hoffman, on the other hand, makes Harvey a guy who has effectively given up until he meets Kate. There's something different about her, and he senses it immediately. That special something inspires him to find the best within himself. Look at the scene where Harvey stands to make a spontaneous toast at his daughter's wedding. The moment starts off cringe-inducing. We expect him to make an ass of himself. What he does instead will surprise you, and Hoffman imbues the scene with power by showing all the frail emotions we usually try to hide from people. Harvey makes himself vulnerable in a tiny act of salvation.

As I said above, Last Chance Harvey is nothing you haven't seen before. It's just done with older actors, a bit more poignancy, and a bit more class. It's definitely a slight little picture, yet Hoffman and Thompson find the humanity inside it. How nice to see a love story in which the central characters really, truly understand what love means.

( out of four)

Last Chance Harvey is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.

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