3 stars

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson

Directed by: Joel Hopkins

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

‘Last Chance Harvey’ encourages audacity of hope

For sheer amiability, it’s hard to top “Last Chance Harvey,” a funny, tender midlife romance starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. The admirably well-preserved Hoffman is 71, so “midlife” may be optimistic, but the film is so generous-spirited that you won’t quibble over trivia.

Hoffman plays Harvey Shines and Thompson is Kate Walker, and fluid cross-cutting in the opening scenes might give you the impression that they are already together. Harvey plays plaintive piano jazz in a darkened room, and the melody overlaps scenes of Kate bustling about her daily chores. He could be improvising in a home studio that she is about to enter with a cup of tea.

It’s all editing legerdemain by writer/director Joel Hopkins. Harvey’s in New York City, Kate’s in London, and even when he flies to England for his daughter’s wedding, the odds of them meeting are astronomical. But for the gods of romantic comedy, no hurdle is insurmountable, and as Hopkins draws them together for near-miss after near-miss, crossing paths by chance and being separated by accident, the postponed inevitability is pleasantly thrilling.

Harvey is a harried underdog, a composer of commercial jingles who’s dismissed by younger rivals at his firm. He’s a master at putting on a brave face, gamely making small talk with an attractive seatmate on the trans-Atlantic flight, and concealing his disappointment when she blows him off with chilled politeness. He’s the odd man out at the wedding dinner, where his ex-wife (Kathy Baker) and her impressive new husband (James Brolin) graciously hold court. The uneasy reunion is made more difficult by Harvey’s frantic phone calls back to Manhattan. There is a crucial meeting he must attend, so he has to cut his London trip short.

Kate, an airport worker who polls travelers, maintains a cheery stiff upper lip as she glides into a state that her fretful mother might call spinsterhood. Kate is a bit embarrassed about her friends’ efforts to set her up on blind dates, but game enough to pack a travel toothbrush in her purse. When the chitchat fizzles, Kate moves on with chagrin tinged by relief. Daring to take a chance on happiness would mean the possibility of disappointment, and she’s nearing the point where it’s just not worth the bother.

Harvey and Kate finally meet in an airport bar, a place where people gather together to be solitary. Harvey is drowning his sorrows in scotch, Kate diluting hers in a good book and chardonnay, and when they strike up a stumbling conversation, the mixture of comedy and pain the film has maintained begins to turn softer and sweeter. They open up to each other with touching honesty. Harvey confesses his onetime ambition to be a jazz pianist, and when Kate asks if he’s good, he admits, “Not good enough.”

Chemistry between actors is hard to define, but the rapport between these multiple Oscar winners is charming to behold. Their conversations are lovely comic duets, adding spin and counterspin to Hopkins’ clever, unforced dialogue. Hoffman’s twinkling sociability is a force of nature, and it interacts with Thompson’s good-natured skepticism the way root beer effervesces around ice.

The actors share leisurely walks around London – I have never seen it photographed more appealingly – and ease into a friendship that might blossom into something more. In a reversal of the usual rom-com gender roles, she’s the staid, sensible one and he’s the life-affirming kook, and he picks away at her reserve like a woodpecker working on an oak.

Feel-good movies often are deservedly dismissed with a condescending pat on the head, but this one is made with such intelligence and talent that it deserves our attention and applause.

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