The great thing about being famous, one has to imagine, is that when you get older there are still lots of people who want to have sex with you. Maybe that’s the same dynamic that drives superstar actors to sign on for that one last film where they get to play a character “of a certain age” who still can get laid by an attractive member of the opposite sex. It’s the cinematic way of telling the world, “I’ve still got it!” Our Smackdown pits two popular male stars against each other, both came of age in the ’60s and are now well into or past their own sixties. In these films, they get to play romantic leads finding love late in life even though, shall we say, they ain’t quite lookin’ the part. Our two actors both play characters with the same initials (H.S.), Jack Nicholson (Harry Sanborn) and Dustin Hoffman (Harvey Shine). Both characters need to make up for lifetimes of mistakes by finding the right love interest for their final act. Will they get their women? Well, come on now, it’s Jack and Dustin. What do you think?
Dustin Hoffman plays Harvey Shine, a failing (and flailing) music jingle writer in Last Chance Harvey. British writer/director Joel Hopkins shoots the whole thing on location in London where, as it turns out, Harvey has landed to see his daughter married. The rehearsal dinner is a disaster, he looks a fool and before he can skulk out of town he gets fired long-distance. While he’s licking his wounds in an airport bar, he runs into the bookish Kate Walker and, although sparks never fly between them, they do, sort of, maybe, start to hit it off. They’re both living lives of quiet romantic desperation. She talks him into sticking around to be a real part of his daughter’s wedding dinner and he does because she’s right and because he really is starting to like this woman. There are details to follow but not a one that will cause you any real doubt about how this is going to work out.
The Defending Champion
Something’s Gotta Give works a little harder to give some blocking obstacles to its two leads getting together. For starters, Diane Keaton’s Erica Barry is a divorced playwright who’s already given up on love pretty convincingly and Jack Nicholson’s Harry Sanborn plays a Jack Nicholson-type scoundrel who is dating her daughter. The straight path for the story to take is for Erica and Harry to hit it off and for him to realize that he likes the mother more than the daughter, but it’s not that easy. Because just as he’s thinking that maybe that’s what he does think along comes Keanu Reeve’s playing Harry’s doctor Julian Mercer who thinks he’s falling in love with Erica, too. In case you’re wondering, Something’s Gotta Give was written and directed by a woman, Nancy Meyers, and she’s got her own message about late love, namely that it can happen for women as well as men and that women can be hot and have younger lovers just like guys.
Both these films carry some of the same baggage, of course, namely that while it is appropriate for the disenfranchised of romantic comedy to get their day, there’s probably also good reason these films work best with younger leads. This point’s a draw, then, but worth noting. Basically, it’s going to be all about the execution.
Even though the scripts to these two films are probably the same number of pages, in terms of heft, Last Chance Harvey is thinner than Something’s Gotta Give. There’s just more going on in the latter film. It’s full of sub-plots and character turns while the former is full its main characters together story and not much more. One is an arrow that zig-zags and the other is a stream that meanders. Both can be good, but they are different.
As far as always having something to look at in every frame of film, Last Chance Harvey is more successful, owing to its beautifully drawn London locations (even though, late on, Something’s Gotta Give does have Paris). Having been to London twice in the last year myself, it all felt familiar and fun. However…
When you spend time enjoying the locations in a film, it’s a sure sign that somehow and some way there is something not working. The “something” in this film is simple believability.
When older actors are portrayed as attracting younger women, the issue of credibility has to be asked. It wasn’t very credible to see Jack Nicholson cavorting with Amanda Peet but, then again, it wasn’t very credible to see Diane Keaton doing the same with Keanu Reeves. In the on-screen chemistry between the leads of the two films, you’d have to give the points to Jack and Diane who actually do feel right for each other somehow and less so to Dustin and Emma. Dustin’s Harvey is older, shorter and more pathetic than her. Part of the time watching Last Chance Harvey (the part where you’re not enjoying the scenary, that is) you find your mind wandering because you are just certain that Emma Thompson ought to be able to land a damn fine man. She’s attractive, charming and there’s that British accent (which may not do much for Londoners, but works wonders on Americans). There’s no real passion between these two characters in the center of Last Chance Harvey. No snap, no crackle, no pop.
That’s character and casting credibility, but there’s also story credibility. I’m willing to forgive a small one here and there and not let it interfere with a good time, but not so willing with a pivotal one. So I had a hard time swallowing the fact that the night before her wedding, Harvey Shine’s daughter decides to tell him she’s going to let her stepdad (played by James Brolin) give her away. What?! First, Harvey may be a loser, but he’s nice and decent enough and the film gives no indication he’s done anything to qualify him for the kind of familial cruelty that choice entails. And, if he has done something, then we probably should know about it and the entire issue probably would have been resolved long before he got on that plane in New York. But this is movie logic. It has to happen for the movie to happen so it happens. I do not give points to movies that work this way.
Overall, Dustin Hoffman’s Harvey Shine actually starts to grow on you and, as he does, you begin to wonder why he gets to hog all the character development. After all, Emma Thompson’s Kate Walker basically just has a looney-tunes mom who thinks a Polish neighbor is a serial killer for her character development. At least in Something’s Gotta Give both Jack and Diane are very clearly drawn characters and, if anything, the scale tips to Diane on that score because Nicholson, basically, is playing a version of his libertine public persona anyway.
Both Harvey and Harry, by the way, have heart conditions but it’s easier to imagine Harry rallying with a quick Viagra than Harvey. Dustin looks healthier than Jack but Jack always has that glint of bad-boy in his eyes.
However, having given the sexual escapade points to Something’s Gotta Give, there is at times a certain sweetness to the entire Last Chance Harvey that can’t be denied. The best moment for me was when Harvey awkwardly forces the issue of whether or not the man who married his ex-wife gets to the toast the bride and groom, or whether he does. As it was going down, I cringed, thinking it was going to be one incredibly bad film moment, like Steve Buscemi’s drunken rant in The Wedding Singer. Only it wasn’t. It was a moment of grace and dignity and I loved whoever resisted the inevitable bad note from someone to go for a joke and to go for heart instead. The film could have used ten more of those moments, but at least it had one.
And, let’s face it, Something’s Gotta Give, ain’t perfect either. There are a whole lot of moments in it that feel like it’s an extended sitcom. From the moment Nicholson’s Harry has a heart problem right before having sex with Amanda Peet and is forced to convalesce in the same house with her mother, well, you just know there is going to be some farce involved. There is.
You can’t win by being bland and non-offensive in a Smackdown any more than you can take the championship belt in the ring by not getting knocked out. Last Chance Harvey used up its last chance with me about half-way through when it became obvious that, well, the rest of the film was going to be obvious. It seems to take absolutely no chances at all, every piece of it is predictable, and there are no great lessons of any kind waiting to be learned here. On the other hand, Something’s Gotta Give was willing to risk creating a plausible relationship between Keanu Reeves and Diane Keaton and, even though it didn’t work for me, it was the effort it made that impressed me and did actually keep open until the end the possibility of a hook-up besides the one between the lead characters. Jack and Diane actually do make a nice couple here and, after a tough and often funny slog, they got there. That’s enough for me to give the decision the champion, Something’s Gotta Give, because the challenger never really came in and made a fight out of it.