Actors up the ante in Last Chance Harvey
December 24, 2008
The times have not been especially kind to the professional fortunes of Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. The two actors own four Academy Awards between them, but the most recent one is the Best Adapted Screenplay that Thompson earned for 1995s Sense and Sensibility. The only Oscar nomination either has scored since then was Hoffmans, for Wag the Dog, back in 1997.Which is criminal in a way, says Joel Hopkins, a 38-year-old London-born director. Hopkins can imagine the atmosphere on the set of Stranger Than Fiction, a 2006 Will Ferrell vehicle that had small roles for both Hoffman and Thompson. The film was well-received, but Hopkins could practically see Hoffmans anxiety build as the actor held his abilities in.Dustin his energy is a full-on, consistent energy, he said. And its suited to being wanted on the set every day. I could imagine him being incredibly frustrated with a supporting role. Hes used to showing up every day at 6 and going for it all day.Hopkins has been the beneficiary of the more positive fallout of all that downtime. Though Hoffman might have stewed while waiting for his scenes, he also used the time to strike up a friendship with Thompson. So when Thompson agreed to star in Last Chance Harvey, Hopkins project about two people unexpectedly falling into a late-in-life romance, it was that much easier to get Hoffman as well.They werent as front and center, demanding leading roles. And because of that I could get them, said Hopkins, whose last film, 2001s Jump Tomorrow, featured fine actors but no movie stars. I couldnt believe that. Its crazy that I got these two.Watch Last Chance Harvey, and you come away with the conclusion that Hopkins was not only fortunate to get two bona fide stars, but also to get two exceptional actors. The film gives Hoffman the sort of attention he craves; the film hardly ever veers away from Hoffmans Harvey Shine, a composer of commercial jingles who has fallen apart in romance and family relations, and is on the verge of doing the same professionally. Thompson whom Hopkins calls a bit more matter of fact than her co-star plays Kate Walker, who has accepted an intrusive mother and horrific blind dates as her lot in life. The two meet in London where she lives, and where he is having a nightmare visit for his semi-estranged daughters wedding and over a few days awkwardly begin a relationship. The plot is elemental and predictable, putting the full burden on the actors to flesh out their characters.Which they do. Hoffman and Thompson have both been nominated for Golden Globe awards for their performances. And Hopkins, who directed and wrote the original screenplay, confesses that he would not want to make such a film with actors of lesser caliber.I definitely think that would be true, he said. Its not a huge story in terms of plot. Its character-driven, and hopefully the small changes these characters go through, in the hands of great actors, makes it watchable. Its a story that requires really solid performers to carry it.Hopkins, however, fights off the idea that Last Chance Harvey is an actors showcase. He says the emphasis on the acting hopefully is not to the point of becoming disengaging. At the same time, he is waging a battle on another front, against having the film be squeezed into the romantic comedy mold. For the most part, it is a fair characterization. The story focuses tightly on the budding romance between Harvey and Kate, and while this is more of a dramatic story, there is a humorous touch to their dialogue. More significantly, there is a familiar, even comforting emotional and visual tone to the film.But Hopkins points to elements especially the ending, which is not out of a fairy tale nor a Hugh Grant movie that upend the usual romantic comedy formula.What I look for, hopefully, is to walk that lovely balance between pathos and whimsy not all light and airy, but to have weight behind things, said Hopkins, who attended New York Universitys graduate film program, and used the London setting of Last Chance Harvey as a reason to return to the U.K. to live. This film, its romantic and funny. But I think people will be disappointed if they think of it as a romcom. I consider them to be a bit more bubbly, and in this film we get more tears.Hopkins points to Notting Hill, the 1999 hit starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, as an example of what he wishes to avoid. Im not affected by these so much, he said. It might touch my funny bone, but rarely does it touch the rawer emotions. Im hoping we dip into a few moments he mentions Harveys humbling, gracious speech at his daughters wedding, a highlight of the film where you can hear a pin drop.Also separating Last Chance Harvey from the typical romantic comedy is the age of his characters. These are people who carry more disappointment than hope with them.To me, older people are just inherently more interesting. More layers. To be blunt, more baggage, said Hopkins. The whole point is to peel back these layers as they meet.Still, Hopkins has no problem making broad, even simple, entertainment. Im not ashamed to be a populist. I like entertaining people, he said. And even less of a problem taking two movie stars and letting them shine.Its exciting to have people, fans of Dustins and Emmas, how excited they were to see, especially Dustin, back to a performance that rates up there with his other great performances. To be part of that is humbling and exciting. Youre watching the monitor and you go, OK, I get it. Dustin and Emma are good, really good.
Last Chance Harvey shows Thursday, Jan. 1, at 5:30 p.m. at Harris Hall as part of Aspen Films Academy Screenings series. For a full Academy Screenings program, go to firstname.lastname@example.org