RIORI Vol 3, Installment 54: Joel Hopkins’ “Last Chance Harvey” (2008)

Last Chance Harvey

The Players…

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, with Kathy Baker, James Brolin, Eileen Atkins, Liane Balaban and Richard Schiff.

The Story…

Harvey Shine’s a struggling musician. Okay, a jingle writer for commercials. Ignoring the mundanity of his work, he presently risks losing his plebeian gig to attend his daughter’s London wedding. Like with his winnowing relevance in the digital age, Harvey discovers that he’s not exactly welcome at the festivities. Looks like Harvey isn’t wanted on either side of the Pond.

While in the airport bar (as do where many a magic moment may happen), he meets a lonely lady and finds himself some unexpected romance. Amazing how a nice cuppa tea works wonders.

The Rant…

It’s not easy being alone. Takes a lot of energy. Takes its toll. It’s a full time job in a way.

The roughest thing about being alone is the slow descent. One does not all of a sudden find themselves cut off from their friends and loved ones, like falling into some Cambodian tiger trap. Nope. Loneliness is slow and sneaky, and all too often the lonely one’s fault.

Being alone is akin to a contagion. You get some sort of depressed stink on you, and your support system of friends, co-workers and family slowly catch a whiff and begin to turn their heads away lest they become infected. You friends think you’re just down and need some space. Your business partners take note of your productivity and an intervention may be needed…someday. You stop being invited to special family occasions like Thanksgiving or your nephew’s bris. People begin to claim the sad old saw: he probably wants to be alone. And therefore completing a circle.

Denial sets in. Who needs other people? They don’t want me around anyway, so screw ’em. I have personal matters to attend to. Here in my room I reign supreme. You’re a Simon & Garfunkel lyric waiting to be written. It’s a delicious, vicious circle. I am alone, therefore I want to be alone. I choose it so. I want to ignore all the bulls*it and drudgery that others might impose upon me. The job. The family. I want to escape. Into myself and my own little sphere of value…which was once richer with other people involved. Too bad I’m alone.

Humans are social creatures. We need to interact with others for intellectual stimulus, open dialogue and argue differing opinions. Even some antisocial twit who f*cks with people needs others to bounce their demented issues off of. And consider the hermit who decidedly shuns people for solitude; they balance their cloistered existence against the bullsh*t that chafed them so. People—of all stripes—need other people, for within and without.

But when you’re lonely—and lonely by yourself—all you have to lean on is you, and that can take a psychic toll.

Ahem. Sorry. Been listening to too much early Cure as of late. Let’s lighten it up a shade, for a little at least.

One of my favorite writers Harlan Ellison once wrote in a collection of essays of the difference between being alone and the idea of aloneness. Since I understand that Mr Ellison is a rather contentious individual let me take a moment to say that I am paraphrasing the man’s observations to meet my own ends here, and in no way am attempting to co-opt any observations I read in his essay. It is just that I figured his musings felt relevant to my rant. If any of you out there in the blogosphere find my little shout-out a tad odd let me go on record saying I would never, ever wish to be James Cameron. Or Aaron Spelling either, for that matter. But then again, who would be?

*90210 riff*

Anyway, Ellison once wrote about the differences between aloneness and being lonely. Aloneness is a choice; we all need some time to ourselves to either tackle personal business or just dick around with sh*t that don’t invite other people to come along and muck up your works. Working on your car, writing in a journal (or blog, hey!), making a small meal just for yourself with as much ketchup as you could stand or a Breaking Bad binge watch. Go away, bolt the door and don’t make me throw this heavy, metal bowl of cheesy poofs at your head! I want to be alone!

want to be alone. Garbo notwithstanding when you’re lonely there’s no one to throw the bowl at. Let alone bolt any doors.

That being said, leaving any doors open within your loneliness echoes an actual Simon & Garfunkel song. Well, maybe just a Paul Simon lyric:

“She said losing love is like a window in your heart/everyone sees you’re blown apart/everyone sees the wind blow.”

For Harvey Shine his loneliness, lowliness and isolation really blows, with or without the cheesy poofs and a frustrating bowl to throw…

Harvey (Hoffman) is at an impasse. With his career, with his family, with his very late mid-life crisis. Everything that was once so secure has been unraveling for years and it’s finally caught up to him.

Harvey’s a musician, in a matter of speaking. In his salad days he fancied himself a jazz pianist. But aspiring to be the next Bill Evans wasn’t going to support a wife and daughter so concessions were made. Advertising contracts came beckoning, therefore solid paychecks. But Harvey’s dreams kept needling him, and his wife Jean (Baker) soon felt the sting. They separated, and Harvey carved out his niche in advertising. Writing jingles rather than movements. More things began to slip away.

Like his daughter Susan (Balaban). It’s been years since Harvey was anything approaching vital in her life. So when Harvey gets an invite to her wedding he views it as an opportunity to stand up again and be dad. Something he could hold onto as a person could ever could, especially as a father.

The nuptials are in London. It’s where the betrothed met. A bit out of the egg for Harvey, but it’s for Susan, dammit! Insecurities be damned. Right, until Harvey finds himself plunked into a hotel a lifetime away from the posh, private guest house. Pariah.

The reception is a disaster. Harvey bails, telling Susan that the reception can wait. He has to get back to New York to handle some business anyway. He understands he’s not wanted and wants to get back to his egg ASAP.

They key to being lonely? It can make you productive under the proper circumstances. Harvey’s proper circumstances is waiting for a belated flight back to JFK and getting wrecked at the airport bar. Another circumstance that falls into play is chatting up statistician Kate (Thompson) on a lark. A final circumstance is that mousy Kate could use a way out of her own loneliness, too. Maybe Harvey could be of help, and in turn help himself?

Maybe. For now, a few shots and a cuppa will work. For now…

How come legacy actors don’t get much respect these days (unless their latest effort has stunk to high Heaven)?

The phrase “legacy actor” is one I made up (I think) in referring to certain actors whose careers have been long, eclectic and often lauded. Maybe an award or two’s been tossed their way to boot. Some of their work can even become the gold standard by which other aspiring thespians try and measure up to. Namely certain actors have a legacy, and their names have vital weight in the Hollywood and/or Broadway community.

Like Dustin Hoffman, of course. Who else would I be talking about here? James Spader? C’mon.

*The James Spader Fan Club are winding up for the beer can pitches*

Folks, please. That’s getting old. And Jon Cryer found work so, huh?

Right. Hoffman. Pretty esteemed legacy actor wouldn’t you say? Oh, and if you’re of the YouTube ADD demographic—which means you like watching things, or at least looking at things—you might wanna check out some of Hoff’s work. You know, to see how it’s done. Myriad actors have looked up to Hoffman’s style and delivery for aeons. His work has mostly been steeped in playing the anti-hero. As Ben Braddock in The Graduate to a divorced single dad in Kramer vs Kramer to out of work tranny in Tootsie to idiot savant in Rain Man to…um…a sensei red panda in Kung Fu Panda, the guy’s been around. And to say versatile would be an understatement and a half. A red panda, I tell you!

But for all his anti-heroics, Hoffman has been self-effacing and compelling. Compelling first and foremost for the whole anti-hero bit. His characters are hard to get behind. Even in his big roles he can come across as annoying or downright ugly. C’mon, Raymond Babbit might’ve been autistic, but it made him no less…pesky. And when he experienced some seriously demented Nazi dental torture in  Marathon Man, a small part of you (admit it) kind of felt he deserved it.

Well, regardless of his irksome roles one cannot deny Hoffman’s legacy. There are but a handful of actors that fall under my umbrella whom have had/still have a legacy. John Wayne, Toshiro Mifune, Katherine Hepburn, Bogey, Jack, DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Mickey Mouse; just to name a few. All have or had carved out a niche in movies that is both wide and enduring, and often a high water mark that other actors try to reach.


Thanks. What precious lines of bullsh*t were those.

So here we reach our quandary. Why don’t legacy actors get their props much anymore? Like I said, a lot of aging actors slow down, make less than compelling films, maybe choose a role (or multiple roles) to just f*ck around a bit and have some fun, grasp at laurels long fallen from the wreath or what appears to be just lost the plot (Pacino, I’m looking at you).

A lot could be argued that most movie attendees have indeed been warped by media saturation—both online and off—and have no patience for work of (gasp) older actors. Nowadays if you’re a successful actor you may at best have ten years in the pocket as relevant or (more accurately) quite bankable. A lot of that has to do with the glammy notions about how Hollywood packages their output. Face facts: one ceases to be “sexy” post 30 years old. We ain’t got the Studio System anymore, where basically a core audience got built up. Nope. Nowadays it’s all flash in the pan. Here’s yer 15 minutes, don’t waste it on saving the whales. Sequel’s be a-callin’.

Cynical? Did you forget where you were? But it is true. Everything has a shelf life, just as everything has a saturation point. These days the latter holds more truth than the former, which in turn directs the former. Legacy stars don’t stand a chance these days. They are old, their Oscars are tarnished, their breasts start to droop and their hair falls out. To wit, the Millenials all let out a collective “Eeyeew.” Then plunk down 12 bucks to watch Scarlett Johannson wink at them. Again. Hey, at least her boobies are still perky and ignore the CV after Lost In Translation.

I figure that’s it with our TMZ, tech gobbling culture. If it ain’t new, it’s through. If you’re old enough to remember Maytag appliances (clothes washers, dryers, digital vibrators, etc) and their “lonesome repairman” commercial campaign then you may get it. The subtext of those ads was Maytag didn’t necessarily have planned obsolescence built into their gizmos; sh*t didn’t go expensive kerboom after five years. Nowadays everything in Hollywood goes splat within ten years. Moreover three. No time to give a nod to the esteemed, older, uglier actors who could act their way out of a Turkish prison. Nope, more money for less art. That may have how it’s been all along.

Now getting back to my original point (I think I may have had one), consider Dustin Hoffman’s legacy. Taking into consideration of the man’s storied and varied career in cinema: he has never been in any of his roles straightforward and not a left-of-center anti-hero. I’m pretty certain in that observation. That’s been his bread and butter since the 60s. It’s his thing, his signature. It’s what makes (most) people want to see his movies. They wanna see Hoffman the passive-aggressive d*ckhole with a few chuckles to feather his cap. That’s been his cachet.

With Last Chance Harvey, I’m sure regarding the above, a little turnabout won’t do much to harm the guy’s vaunted career. In fact, it might help it, sagging as it’s been lately. Red panda, I tell you!

Back to the real, un-pixelated world. In Harvey it’s good to see that even in his twilight years Hoffman has lost none of the awkward intensity that has made many of his roles great. The guy’s style has almost always been twitchy, sometimes odious and barely likable. Of course, that’s what makes for a good anti-hero, a type of character that Hoffman more or less pioneered. His characters often find themselves tripping over their own feet. We watch, we cringe, we snicker. But for all his gangly characters with their hang-ups, issues and occasional, outright histrionic blithering, none of them have ever come across as a serious loser. Teetering on failure maybe, but never a klutzy, grade-A nimbob.

Until now.

Harvey has Hoffman playing against type. Way against type. His dejected husband/father/maker of Tide seem wondrous is unlike any role I’ve seen from the guy. His Harvey’s also very vulnerable, like a raw nerve. Everything in his world has fallen apart, gradually, like a stream’s flow wearing down the rocks. And it’s all his fault through insecurity, anxiety and a trap of loneliness and isolation by his own design. Not your typical hero. Not quite an anti-hero either. With an anti-hero he is either outright unlikeable or toeing the line between principled and nihilistic (think Mad Max or Travis Bickle. Or just read the Observe And Report installment. Again, hopefully).

Not Harvey. He’s dejected and not quite a victim of circumstance. He’s not pleasant. Mostly a basset hound in an ill-fitting suit. Uncomfortable in his own skin. How the hell are we supposed to rally around such a drudge when he’s the Academy Award winning version of Lt Barclay from Star Trek: TNG?

(If any of you out there got that reference bless you and get out of Mom’s basement more often.)

But seriously, how? That’s where the acting comes in. For all of Harvey’s flaws, he’s clumsily self-conscious, sympathetic despite his hell by design, trying to do what (he believes) is the right thing. He jaunts off to London as a second-class citizen to his daughter’s wedding, whose step-family receives better than he ever did. He needs a hug.

The vulnerability is the key. Of course we’ll all felt like Harvey once in a while. We don’t want to admit to that, feeling all lonely and all at sea with ourselves, but it’s a reality. Face it, fess up and go along with the story. Harvey is fifth wheel syndrome run rampant, and all the better for it.

Since we’ve established that Harvey is a film about juxtapositioning an actor known for less than traditionally vulnerable roles/a lonely schlub who needs a break character study it might be prudent to  point out that Harvey‘s plot is terribly derivative. Wait, what? Yep. It’s your typical redemption story. Loser makes good, finds love, revamps his ailing family life and career. That’s not a spoiler; watching the movie you know that’s gonna happen. Sure, Harvey is a bit predictable, but it’s excellently staged. Credit the acting. In the endgame, it’s the only thing that’s holding this trifle together.

To paraphrase Bill Hicks: there’s snarky jibes on the way. Relax. Don’t want to lose any (more) of you.

Right. Character study. Hoffman is our avatar about the lovelorn and lonely. But this ain’t just about Harvey. We have Kate, too, don’t forget. Thompson is an esteemed actress in her own right, and much more than Kenneth Branagh’s former squeeze. Think she nabbed a few of them superfluous Awards too for her screen time. Seen a bit of her sh*t. Her stock in trade has been in histrionics (at least by what I’ve seen). Sure, she can be reserved, but it’s usually tempered by letting edginess sneak out from the corners of her mouth, like spitting out a chew.

For Harvey, that cutting is still present but is now tempered by fragility. Wait, that’s not quite it. Brittleness is a more apt term. Her Kate is lonely like Harvey. She’s frazzled and awkward and loveless and looking down the barrel of middle age…wait, that shot went off years ago. And she’s feeling all of it, from her dead end job, crapping out on the dating scene and her codependent mother who is practically gaffer-taped to her mobile phone’s speed dial (or whatever they call it these days. Last I checked cell phones didn’t have dials, even back in 2008). Kate’s on the fast track to becoming what lesser PC-philes used to call an “old maid.” Like Donna Reed in It’s A Wonderful Life‘s alternate reality. She needs a hug.

So of course both the twain shall meet. For a film like Harvey it’s not only inevitable, it’s essential.

To claim that the movie is star-crossed is and an understatement. Actually, it’s more like…well…I’m not sure what to call it. Two lonely people finding each other, and in turn finding themselves? It’s the stuff of a billion rom-coms, even one as bittersweet as this. Harvey‘s protags aren’t star-crossed. They’re destined to find each other. It’s along the movie’s inevitable curves.

What makes this usual schlock work so well—if at all, incredibly—is due to one thing, and for the first time in this blogger’s grumbling it’s not the pacing (although pretty good. A tiger cannot change its Fruit Stripe gum wads). It’s the editing. Took me a bit to pick up on it, kinda like an “icebox moment” in a Hitchcock flick.

Movie sign! Time for a little annoying film trivia courtesy of yours only! Oh, shut up. Been pretty sober (at least in print) in analyzing Harvey. Time to shake off the fleas.

Hitch coined the term based on his hopes that after a person got home after the movie one would suddenly recall an inconsistency in his movie that would be the antithesis of Kafka’s third act gun rule (look that one up on your own time, buster), maybe when the viewer was reaching for some chicken out of the icebox. There’d be a pause, a head scratching and a general malaise of “wait a minute…”

Harvey‘s icebox moment is a bit more accessible. And you don’t have to pay that much attention, but you should because the film’s editing is the pinion upon which the whole story spins. Harvey is excellently staged, yes, but also excellently edited. Never before in my immediate memory have I ever seen such a film that was cut so well (beyond the technical aspect sh*t) that it was a story element in and of itself. Let’s face facts, no one really cares about good editing until Oscar season, and even then the honor usually falls under Best Picture. Harvey won zero awards in the red carpet sense, but its trimmings were f*cking vital in how the story played out. And not in an overt, pandering way, either. Even I, your ever diligent OCD movie dork missed the cues at first, but in simpler terms Harvey’s editing is smart. Amazing even.

Every scene is framed according to the troubles our protags are wrestling with, balanced against one another revealing their personal hells. We have Harvey. He is alone, he is a drudge, he is ostracized by his family. We have Kate. She is alone, she’s put upon, she is rapidly hurdling towards in an aforementioned less-PC world could consider “old maid” territory. And back and forth and back again we go for the better part of the first act. These cuts show and never tell what’s afoot here. We know these kids are unlucky in love (the bar scene is heartbreaking, as well as it’s reflection at the reception scene), but director Hopkins never takes that frozen chicken’s ire out on a right cross to the temple. Like I said, took me a bit to catch the drift, but when I did, whoa daddy here’s where drama happens. Like a cherry blossom, and no I ain’t being overly poetic, ya dips.

All the rapture I’ve slathered over Harvey for the past nine years doesn’t mean nothing stank in Denmark. Of course not. Even the greatest of movies (which this nugget is far from) has a few rats in the cellar. What? You’ve read this blog enough before. Unless the movie under the ‘scope that week is either truly deplorable, gets my socio-commentary dander up into overdrive or is just a non-stop 100 minute facepalm I only bitch and moan with such aplomb such as Londoners didn’t do during the Blitz. The flipside is me trying to be polite—equitable even—and point out, “Hey, wait a minute…” even with a decent movie. And decent Harvey is, but there’s stuff there that made my eyes roll. Minor, but there. So here they were.

Harvey’s eager desperation seemed a might pathetic. We get the fact the guy’s a failure by his own design, and we are well aware of the magic movie laws dictating that deep sh*t will ultimately yield fallow compost. However keeping them cards too close to the director’s chest might result in his hand being forced. Hoffman’s a gifted actor, and his CV might exceed Hopkins’. Hell, it might even exceed Hopkins’ life, but he’s the director and maybe well-acquianted with his lead’s delicate past and reluctance for going after the jugular.

Maybe not. For after considering Harvey’s sea change in life by the third act, one gets the impression that Hoff’s iron will regarding character acting got willingly rusty. We got plenty of a taste of Harvey’s dire straits from the get go. Do we need a reaffirmation of his insecurities—albeit in a sunnier light—later on after he woos the girl? Right. It should be about trepidation, reluctance to take a plunge no matter how desperate the need is. We don’t need sniveling, no matter how sweet-natured.

Um. That’s about it for the bitch department. Huh. You’re welcome? Who’s up for golf?

After all I said and what was watched this film made me smile in spite of me. Yeah, it’s derivative, but please refer back to my “predictable” comment. Almost all rom-coms are connect the dots, regardless of the skills delivered by the cast, the director, the writers and/or the scouts. Sometimes though, all the essential pieces fall into place. I’ve learned that with a rom-com this can be a very dodgy undertaking. Thanks to (or more often no thanks) established gimmickry solid with the genre most cast and crew play it all fast and loose for maximum laughs, minimal pathos and an inevitable butt shot, gender regardless. Hopkins’ was a nice tonic to all that soap opera folderol. Harvey was thoughtful, clever and overall satisfying entertainment. By the way legacy, actor Dustin Hoffman was our awkward lead. That means something in these days of Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johannson.

One more thing: of course everything works out. That’s not a spoiler. That how all rom-coms end.

Precious few deserve to though.

Now if you’ll excuse me I am lonely and I need to hit up the nearest airport bar. Maybe Emma Thompson will be there. Or Dustin Hoffman. Or Heather Graham circa 1997. I ain’t picky.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Smart, stinging and sweet. Funny too. It’s flicks like this one that reassure/justify my scribblings here at RIORI. That and I’ve been hard up for a non sh*t-bag movie here in ages, so I’ll take what the queue sends.

Stray Observations…

  • “Enjoy London.”
  • The wedding bartender’s looks are priceless.
  • “I’ve always enjoyed stationary.” Wink wink.
  • God, Thompson was looking cute here. Not bad for 51.
  • “If that’s for me I’m in the shower.”
  • Beware of Poles bearing smoked gifts.
  • “Carry your books?” Too goddam sweet.
  • Never realized before how short Hoffman was. Or how tall Thompson was rather.
  • “You do know this is the children’s table?”

Next Installment…

I can’t think of a clever teaser for a movie titled The Last Mimzy.

Leave a Reply