Strong acting saves’Last Chance Harvey’

Posted April 02, 2009, at 9:21 p.m.

In theaters

LAST CHANCE HARVEY, written and directed by Joel Hopkins, 92 minutes, rated PG-13.

Some movies you want to hang for their contrivances, others you’re able to overlook in spite of them. Joel Hopkins’ “Last Chance Harvey,” from his own script, is the latter.

With one exception — and it’s the exception that matters — there isn’t one element in this movie that hasn’t been painstakingly manufactured, sometimes to the point of inducing nausea given the gross run of sentiment the script courts.

In lesser hands, you would gag on the forced elements of treacle “Harvey” bastes itself in, but here’s the exception: If you have a cast who can approach the material straight and balance it with real emotion, little miracles can happen onscreen that otherwise wouldn’t have happened at all.

“Harvey” is the story of two single adults of a certain age and from different continents who are on the cusp of resigning themselves to living out the rest of their lives without a significant other.

They are lonely individuals, and sometimes that loneliness is palpable. Since neither is getting younger and the prospects of finding a new love are wearing thin, they each have gone about the busy work it takes to fill up a life not shared with another. One person takes writing classes and endless phone calls from her mother (Eileen Atkins). The other writes compositions for the piano in his spare time.

That would be Harvey (Hoffman, at last putting himself fully into a role after too many of years of phoning it in), a musician whose first and only marriage ended in failure. Unfortunately, so did the career he mapped out for himself. Instead of becoming the great jazz pianist he wanted to be, life had other ideas in mind, and his musical career was reduced to writing jingles for television commercials.

As for Kate Walker, well, she has her neurotic mother to contend with while her co-workers work overtime to set her up on blind dates, none of which pan out. She’s a striking woman making her way through life the best way she can, which on a personal level isn’t very successfully.

And then fate strikes — and strikes, and strikes — when she meets Harvey, who arrives in London for his estranged daughter’s wedding. First, Harvey and Kate meet at the airport, where she works. Then they sort of meet much later when he’s getting out of a cab that she just happens to be entering from the other side. Finally, they meet for real at a bar and have a conversation about who had the worst day.

That would be Harvey, who just was fired from his job on the very day his daughter’s wealthy stepfather (James Brolin) was chosen to walk her down the aisle. He also missed his flight back to New York, but as the conversation bubbles up between him and Kate, it quickly becomes clear that missing that flight might have been a blessing. Obviously, these two were made for each other.

So, yes, all of it is contrived — but it’s also charming, endearing and well-acted. Hoffman and Thompson have the sort of believable and necessary chemistry this sort of movie needs if it’s to succeed. Since they do, it does. “Last Chance Harvey” is slight and sweet, a date movie for adults who can brush aside the cliches in favor of watching two pros who make acting look unnaturally easy.

Grade: B

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

DOUBT, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, 104 minutes, PG-13.

John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” a church melodrama of the highest order, has so much going for it, it’s too bad it’s ultimately as hollow as it is. But that’s the case and here’s the thing — those who are interested in watching the tug of war between a priest and a nun who hate each other with a white-hot passion should see it, anyway.

Turns out there’s enough to recommend.

The film stars two of our best working actors — Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman — as well as Amy Adams, who grounds the movie in ways that led to an Academy Award nomination. Joining her, Streep and Hoffman in receiving that honor is Viola Davis, who gives the movie a necessary shot of substance amid the sideshow that is Streep’s cliched but marvelously overheated performance.

Set in the Bronx in 1964, the film follows Streep as Sister Aloysius, the pinched principal of the St. Nicholas School who has some rather antiquated beliefs about how to lead her charges. Vicious Aloysius is all about inciting fear — she’ll literally smack you down if she thinks you’re out of line — which is in direct contrast to how the more liberal and kind Father Flynn (Hoffman) chooses to lead his life. It is, in fact, Father Flynn’s own private behavior that’s called into question here.

Apparently, timid Sister James (Adams) saw something that has left her to question Flynn’s growing relationship with an altar boy named Donald Stewart (Joseph Foster), who happens to be St. Nicholas’ first African-American student, and thus, during this era, its most vulnerable. Did Flynn do something inappropriate with Donald when he called him to the rectory? If he didn’t, which he claims he didn’t when Sister James confronts him, then why did she smell alcohol on the boy’s breath?

Doubt fuels the situation, with Sister Aloysius eagerly wanting to take Father Flynn to the mat when Sister James spills the goods. What builds between them is the potential for one massive showdown, which the movie comes close to providing, but which it fails to deliver with any real guts or substance when it counts. It’s discouraging. The whole moment the movie builds to just evaporates onscreen.

The good news? It’s still fun to watch Streep bristle into a boiling burn. It’s also a treat to watch her spar with Hoffman, even if they don’t fully come through when they must (the script lets them down).

As for Adams, she’s offered her meat and potatoes in this movie and she eats them up with a trembling relish. Finally, as for Donald’s mother, Viola Davis’ brief appearance is so powerful she comes very close to stealing the show.

Grade: B

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of hundreds of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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