Somehow, seeing Dustin Hoffman in an airport scene still makes me sit up and pay attention. Over 40 years have passed since he held a generation's fancy as Benjamin Braddock, the lost and bewildered college grad passing through life on an airport people-mover in The Graduate, and to see him emerge into a London terminal, silver-haired, snippy and still as lost as ever in Last Chance Harvey is to appreciate how little Hoffman, and we ourselves, have changed.
Hoffman has never been one to dive happily into the golden pond of over-the-hill actors playing up their bedraggled faces. So far this decade, his roles have skewed mainly goofy and needy, from I Heart Huckabees to Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. It's as if he's afraid of being quiet for fear he'll be forgotten.
In this titular role, Hoffman's Harvey Shine (far from descriptive; he wears his name as if it's imploring him) is the same. Harvey's nebbishy-salesman demeanor may have served him as a young graduate, but it now renders him awkward and undistinguished. His ill-fitting suits and clingy need for human interaction don't really jibe with the modern world presented in the film, and people put up with him rather than enjoying his company. Harvey's in London to watch his daughter, Susan, marry a smooth, upscale young man. Susan likes her father well enough, but she tells him she'd rather have her stepfather (James Brolin, who could host seminars on wearing your age well) give her away.
By chance, Harvey meets Kate Walker (Emma Thompson) who's accepted her wrinkles so thoroughly that she'd rather not bother trying to date. The two of them trade sob stories and begin a daylong walk-and-talk that takes over the film.
Writer-director Joel Hopkins, in his first studio effort after drawing attention (and the Florida Film Festival's 'Bubbling Underâ?� award) for 2001's Jump Tomorrow, starring TV on the Radio singer Tunde Adebimpe, seems to have made Harvey for the sole purpose of watching Hoffman and Thompson fall in love in a beautiful city under soft lighting. And to that end the film works like crazy. Hopkins is right: It is worth an hour and a half to watch those two charm each other with literary quotations, ballroom dancing and moments of unexpected vulnerability. For a while, the movie even flirts with shunning formulaic devices like the 'big miscommunicationâ?� followed by the 'run to win her backâ?� and just letting the whole thing fade out like a sweet, uneventful daydream.
But those turns are employed, though late in the film and hesitantly. Granted, without them there wouldn't be much of a movie left, just some lovely scenes from a much-extended short film, but Hopkins' instincts belie the material. Like Harvey, he'll go through the motions of the polite world, but he'd rather spend an extra minute or two simply regarding the woman in front of him. Nobody does that anymore. It's uncomfortable, even creepy when done to the wrong person. But it keeps Dustin Hoffman quiet for a while, and allows time for the real 70-something-year-old man to appear dignified.
It's a good look on him.