(Overture) Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kathy Baker, James Brolin, Richard Schiff, Eileen Atkins, Liane Balaban. Directed by Joel Hopkins
Happiness is a rare and precious commodity in this life, and we get so few opportunities to reach out and grab it. We have to treat each of these opportunities as if they are our last chance to be truly happy.
Harvey Shine (Hoffman) is a failed jazz pianist who has made a living – okay, quite a bit more than that – writing jingles for Madison Avenue. He has flown to London to attend the wedding of his daughter Susan (Balaban). While arriving at Heathrow, he has a brief encounter with Kate (Thompson), who works as one of those airport survey takers, the kind of job that one must have a very thick skin to perform. Harvey is somewhat rude to her, as many are.
Harvey has reason to be in a pissy mood. He is entering the lion’s den, as it were. He and his daughter have been drifting apart for many years, especially after Harvey’s marriage to Jean (Baker), Susan’s mother, collapsed. Jean is married to Brian (Brolin) now, and at the rehearsal dinner Harvey is informed by his daughter that she wants Brian to give her away at the ceremony the next day rather than Harvey.
For a father, that would constitute something akin to water boarding. It is the rejection of a man’s paternal abilities, a means of telling a dad that his services were never appreciated. Whether or not Harvey had earned that kind of rejection, it still hurts in ways that cannot truly be fathomed by someone who has never been father to a daughter.
To make matters worse, Harvey gets a phone call from his boss (Schiff) at the agency he works for to inform him that his services are no longer required there either. Drowning in a sea of emotional torment, Harvey decides to get out of London with what little pride he has remaining, stick his tail between his legs and head home to lick his wounds.
Unfortunately, he is denied even that and he winds up at an airport bar waiting for a flight to take him back to New York. There, he sees Kate reading while on a break from her thankless job. Remembering her from his arrival, feeling guilty at his rudeness (and perhaps feeling a need to improve his karma somewhat), he tried to strike up a conversation with her and apologize. She is distant and uninterested, but he gradually wears her down with his charm. As they get to talking, they begin to realize that they are more like than unalike, and that one of those opportunities we spoke about earlier is suddenly right there in front of them.
Writer/director Hopkins had the framework for what could have been one of the better romantic movies of recent years. Certainly he has a couple that an audience can get behind; there is definite chemistry between Hoffman and Thompson and the couple they portray have been wounded by life, people who have been abandoned by the angels of their better nature. Instead, they have suffered from wrong choice after wrong choice, leading them to an encounter in an airport bar that might well be their last chance at happiness.
Hopkins could have just easily sat his camera in a two-shot in front of these two magnificent actors and just let it film the two of them talking. Instead, he opts for romantic interludes of montages of the two of them walking on the banks of the Thames, chatting animatedly with a truly awful, treacly score drowning out what they’re actually saying. It’s frustrating as all get out because we would much rather hear what they have to say.
There’s also an unnecessary subplot involving Kate’s paranoid mom (Atkins) and a neighbor she suspects of being a serial killer. While Atkins is a charming enough actress, whenever her character calls Kate it blows the movie right off of the tracks. And, let’s not even talk about the movie’s third act in which all the charm of the first two is lost in a cliché and hoary finish that makes us wish this movie had been made by more capable filmmakers, which isn’t to say that Hopkins isn’t one – he just isn’t one here.
The saving grace of this movie, and the reason to seek it out, are those scenes in which Hopkins simply lets us watch Kate and Harvey interact. There is literal magic in those scenes, and those moments are worth cherishing. This is a case of the actors transcending the material they are given to work with and making a decent movie out of one that might easily have been just awful.
WHY RENT THIS: Hoffman and Thompson are two of the best actors of our generation; any opportunity to see them is worth taking. They make a likable couple that you can’t help but root for; whenever they are onscreen together chatting, there’s plenty of magic.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An unnecessary subplot involving Kate’s paranoid mother derails the movie at every turn. The movie falls apart in the third act, relying on cliché and happenstance to resolve the action.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of blue language but nothing more than that.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoffman and Thompson first performed together in Stranger than Fiction. While they only had a couple of scenes together, they both enjoyed the experience so much that they looked for a project that they could tackle together as leads.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: Up in the Air