Watching Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson spar and parry and coo in "Last Chance Harvey" is a bit like listening to Jascha Heifetz play "The Flight of the Bumblebee." The sheer professionalism is exhilarating, but at the same time you may wonder why so much is expended on so little.
Hoffman plays Harvey Shine, a frustrated jazz pianist who earns his living by writing jingles. With his job on thin ice, he heads to London to attend his estranged daughter's wedding. At Heathrow airport he has a Meet Cute moment when he rebuffs Kate (Thompson), an airline employee who is standing in his way with a clipboard and questionnaire in hand.
For a long time, before their inevitable hookup, the writer-director Joel Hopkins intercuts the separate but parallel lives of these two malcontents. Harvey is perpetually dealing with job hassles on his cellphone and not looking forward to confronting his ex-wife (Kathy Baker). Kate, single and not liking it, has a dotty, clingy mom (Eileen Atkins) who monitors her every move. In one particularly squirmy scene, we see Kate on a blind date with a younger man who clearly does not have eyes for her.
All this gloomy masochism is made palatable because of the performers. And yet we must ask: Is this any way to show off two of our finest actors? Whenever Thompson, in particular, has an emotional moment that hits home, you may bemoan the fact that it was in this movie. (I remember how marvelous she was in last year's underrated "Brideshead Revisited" playing an aging matriarch who would make Harvey seem like a whippersnapper.)
Hoffman at least is doing a lead role for a change. A number of years back he made the pragmatic decision to become a supporting player – a character actor. (In a way, even when he was a leading man he was a character actor – there was, and is, nothing generic about him.) He's often been amusing in films ranging from "Stranger Than Fiction" to "Meet the Fockers," but you sense he's not overly invested in the work.
That's not entirely the case in "Last Chance Harvey," where Hoffman underplays with bemused dexterity Harvey's quiet pathos. It's bracing to see an actor of Hoffman's generation keep it simple, as opposed to, say, Al Pacino, who doesn't just chew the scenery these days – he treats it as a banquet buffet. Hoffman seems to be winking at us in "Last Chance Harvey," as well as at Kate. He wants us to know he's still in the game and he can still raise a tear or two. He also wants us to know he's ready for sterner stuff. I don't doubt it. (Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.)