Thursday, January 15, 2009

Film reviews: 'Last Chance Harvey' and 'Revolutionary Road': When stars make the difference

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road.

By Hap Erstein

Movie stars are what drives the commercial box office and sometimes it is hard to fathom why anyone would care about the characters without the enticement of getting to watch favorite actors.

A case in point is this week’s new release, Last Chance Harvey, a predictable romantic comedy elevated substantially by the presence of co-stars Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. Neither Oscar-winning performer holds any appeal for the lucrative teen market, but moviegoers who appreciate veteran character actors who know how to squeeze humor and pathos out of a prosaic screenplay should enjoy this film even as they know exactly where it is going.

It opens with Hoffman as sad sack Harvey Shine noodling at the piano. It seems his lifelong ambition was to be a jazz composer, but instead he found middling success as a writer of commercial jingles. If that were not a sufficient job rut, halfway around the globe is Thompson’s Kate -- no, writer-director Joel Hopkins did not think enough of her to give her a last name -- one of those chipper airport employees who attempt to stop travelers with a tourism survey.

Long-divorced and almost as long out of his grown daughter’s life, rumpled, offbeat Harvey is London-bound for her wedding. It promises to be awkward at best, and will be made all the more so by the daughter’s decision to have her step father (dapper, well-pressed James Brolin) walk her down the aisle and give her away.

Arriving at Heathrow Airport, Harvey is only moderately rude, breezing past Kate and her clipboard of questions. But after he gets his comeuppance from his daughter, misses his return flight and, as a result, gets fired from his job, he heads to the airport bar, runs into Kate on her lunch break -- what, they don’t have an employee commissary? -- and the movie begins in earnest.

They walk and talk throughout London, in sort of a middle-aged version of Before Sunrise. She persuades him to return to the wedding reception, he persuades her to join along and -- spoiler alert that only the cinematically illiterate will not see coming -- they fall in love.

Still, there is something slyly endearing about these two actors, stars despite the fact that they look like ordinary folks, that they are a constant pleasure to watch and root for. Their performances are hardly award fodder, although the Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominated them both for Golden Globes, and the heart-tugging comedy they specialize in is every bit as hard as the showy histrionics that does garner statuettes.

Take for example Kate Winslet’s flashy turn in Revolutionary Road, for which she did win the Golden Globe for best dramatic actress. Based on the late Richard Yates’ downbeat novel of marital discord in the 1950s suburbs, the film is much more substantial than Last Chance Harvey, yet it falls far short of the satisfying indictment of The Way We Were for which it is reaching.

In part this is because the star factor gets in the way of Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as April and Frank Wheeler, the golden couple that feels sure they are too good for the ‘burbs and soon plot their escape to Paris. In between domestic yelling matches, that is.

The two stars bring considerable baggage to these roles. It would be hard to forget that they were the star-crossed lovers in Titanic 11 years ago and hard to deny that their reunion is a more sour voyage, though just as inevitable. Less evident, but just as significant, is that Revolutionary Road is directed by Sam Mendes, who more successfully skewered the suburbs in American Beauty and does not seem to have anything new to add to the subject here.

Winslet and DiCaprio are why people will go to see the movie, but a couple of scene-stealing supporting cast members are just as worthy of attention. Michael Shannon (Bug) takes control of each scene he is in, playing the mentally disturbed son of the local pushy real estate agent (Kathy Bates). His illness seems to be that he has not learned how not to say exactly what is on his mind. Also worth being ticketed for scene thievery is Zoe Kazan (yes, the legendary Elia’s granddaughter) is a flirtatious secretary that Frank takes to lunch and to bed.

Revolutionary Road is hardly revolutionary stuff, but it is well acted. And these days, that is just as important as having something to say.

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