More Harveys, Please

Praising a rare romantic drama about middle-aged lovers

Not to be uncharitable, but I’m wary when people who don’t see many movies complain “they don’t make good movies anymore.” True, they don’t make as many good movies as they should (and never have).

As an article in The New Yorker recently observed, people in Hollywood cheerfully set out to intentionally make bad movies every day because they know certain action/horror/teen-comedy formulas work over and over. One of those formulas, sadly, is sadism. Witness the Saw franchise.

But, in general, the more that people who complain about today’s movies talk, it becomes evident they’re just not cut out for the tough stuff that often is in the best movies as well as the worst. They’re not so much complaining about the quality of movies as the presence of violence, sex, nudity, foul language, intentionally provocative themes and a pitch or tone that can get cynical about humanity.

But that’s what life is like. So there hasn’t been much to say to them except “don’t go.”

On the other hand, people who make that complaint — while not always film buffs — often tend to be informed and intelligent, up on current news and the arts. They’re legitimately expressing a desire for movies they can relate to that, while not corny or sentimentally trite, are not edgy for their own sake either.

I think I now understand what they want after seeing Last Chance Harvey. This is the kind of movie we need more of — although not at the expense of a Milk or Slumdog Millionaire or The Wrestler.

Harvey is a sleeper specialty-house hit that stars Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. He is a divorced, aging but still creatively vital American commercial-jingle writer who goes to London for his estranged daughter’s wedding. She is underemployed, conducting surveys at the airport while fielding endless phone calls from a lonely, neurotic mother. They meet and slowly become the answer to each other’s needs.

I’m not making the case for this as deathless cinematic art — as a relationship movie, plot-wise it’s conventional rather than daring like, say, Jules and Jim or even My Best Friend’s Wedding.

There are places it just doesn’t go that a great movie would, although it does that to minimize overstated falsity. (A fellow film critic who generally liked the movie has pointed out that the end lacks a big scene where Hoffman’s Harvey Shine really confides his needs to Thompson’s Kate Walker.) But in a world where Hollywood romantic-relationship movies are artificial and contrived — and often coarse and immature — Last Chance Harvey tries to be respectful of its audience and honest to its characters.

Harvey really ought to be seen by everyone who went to Rachel Getting Married and vice versa. That film, directed by Jonathan Demme from a screenplay by Jenny Lumet, has an intoxicatingly utopian dreamscape of a modern wedding. Yet in the middle is this intruding character (played by Anne Hathaway) filled with several screenplays worth of movie-exaggerated problems.

Harvey’s wedding scene is far less visionary as cinema, but it’s minus the hype. Feeling pushed away from his daughter (Liane Balaban) by his ex-wife and her husband (Kathy Baker and James Brolin), Harvey responds with a touching speech that is both gracious and holds its ground. It helps that all the other actors are so good and play off Hoffman so well.

We need more movies like Harvey to cover the middle ground. It not only respects actors, it respects their legacy, their back-story. As Mark Harris pointed out in a wonderful Entertainment Weekly essay, that legacy means something when we see them on screen. A 71-year-old Hoffman playing this part, a confused man looking for meaning in life, is imbued with the resonance of The Graduate, Kramer vs. Kramer, Straight Time and all his other “honest” performances. (Less so 49-year-old Thompson, but she does bring instant respect for her accomplishments to date.)

And why can’t other actors of a certain age (Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Al Pacino, etc.) try similar films rather than the stale and dishonest action pieces and buddy comedies they grind out? Couldn’t Clint Eastwood, for instance, drop the Archie Bunker-with-a-gun macho silliness of Gran Torino in favor of something more revealing? And maybe some of our best middle-aged actresses — Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton, Harvey’s own Kathy Baker or Rachel’s Debra Winger — could be paired with them?

I’m not just saying we need more movies for older actors and moviegoers. As several critics have noted, Harvey plays like a middle-aged version of one of the most sensitive and honest romantic films of the 1990s, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

That was a young person’s movie. But we need more like that, too.

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