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No chance for Last Chance Harvey at the Denver Film Festival

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The Last Night presentation of the Denver Film Festival should be a triumphant moment: an opportunity to sum up all that's best about the fest in one last blast of cinematic joy. But it doesn't always work out that way, as is demonstrated by the 2007 blog "August Rush Closes the Denver Film Festival on a Hackneyed Note." For those lucky enough to have forgotten about the flick entirely, August Rush had a local hook: Keri Russell, who was raised in Highlands Ranch, had one of the main roles, and she actually showed up for the screening, speaking for a grand total of about thirty seconds. Too bad the movie itself was such a deadly fantasia -- one that represented Hollywood filmmaking at its most patronizing and condescending.

And yet, even that sin against cinema was less painful to watch than Last Chance Harvey, the main attraction at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on Saturday Night. This flat-out agonizing Dustin Hoffman-Emma Thompson romance couldn't have been easier to predict had the audience been given copies of the script prior to the screening. And while the ending was happy by the conventional definition, getting there was anything but.

The evening got underway with festival director Britta Erickson and Channel 31's Libby Weaver introducing winners of juried prizes for best student production (Robert Cosnahan for Multiple Choice), documentary (Another Planet's Ferenc Moldoványi), emerging filmmaker (Nina Paley, represented by Sita Sings the Blues) and feature (Moscow, Belgium). In addition, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper stepped to the podium to wish the city a happy 150th birthday, and to introduce actor Bill Pullman, winner of this year's John Cassavetes Award, who acknowledged the crowd from his seat along the side of the main level.

Then came Jonathan Shair, vice president of Starz Entertainment, the DFF's title sponsor, whose film production arm, Overture, backed Last Chance Harvey -- no doubt the reason the movie was handed the plum Last Night slot. Shair noted that the audience assembled at the Ellie was the first to see the movie prior to quoting from a Variety review that praised Harvey for creating "emotional magic."

I can only guess that critic John Anderson was having a particularly pleasant acid trip when he wrote those words, because the film's only act of magic was making 92 minutes seem like several months. The plot revolves around two sad sacks who are given a second chance at love -- and if this sentence sounds stereotypical, that's entirely appropriate. Hoffman's Harvey Shine is the sort of melancholic nudge who practically demands to have mopey piano music accompanying his every slump-shouldered step. It's convenient, then, that he's a keyboardist, so he can provide the depressive notes himself.

Thompson's Kate, meanwhile, is the sort of cliched old maid who specializes in brave smiles and mild sassiness -- but the only person who calls her cell phone is her lonely mother. Cue the cloying strings. The pair get together after Hoffman, who's about to lose his depressing job as a jingle writer, flies to London for the wedding of his daughter (Liane Balaban). She promptly adds to his burden by telling him that she wants her stepfather (an impossibly unctuous James Brolin) to give her away instead of him. Shortly thereafter, Hoffman asks his ex-wife (Kathy Baker) why she married him in the first place. She replies that she was young at the time and he was fun -- a claim to which viewers couldn't possibly relate. Up to that point, he's been about as peppy and upbeat as Sylvia Plath at an appliance convention.

Of course, Harvey and Kate wind up in the same airport bar together (she works there doing surveys; he brushed her off shortly after arriving). And yes, they wind up talking and relating -- not that the conversations are memorable in and of themselves. In director Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, which Last Chance Harvey superfically resemble, the central couple's dialogues are wide-ranging and often surprising. In contrast, the words provided by Harvey writer/director Joel Hopkins remain stubbornly one-dimensional. They're mere pretexts for master-thespian demonstrations by Hoffman and Thompson, whose performances are dominated by easy choices.

Granted, Thompson underplays at times, unlike Hoffman, who seldom appears in a shot without some kind of tic distorting his features. But both spend far too many scenes self-consciously trying to hold back tears before making personal admissions that were obvious from the start. When Kate finally cries, near the flick's blessed conclusion, it's less a catharsis than a relief.

The Opera House crowd seemed to agree. There was a respectable amount of sympathetic laughter during the film, but the second the credits started to roll, most attendees bolted for the doors, apparently thrilled to finally be rid of this dreary pair once and for all. But they were beaten to the punch by Bill Pullman. At the film's midpoint, I took a break from staring at my watch in the hope that I could make the second hand move faster to check Pullman's reaction -- but his chair was empty, as were those of his entourage. Lucky bastards. -- Michael Roberts


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