Divorced American Harvey Shine writes jingles for television commercials, a job not in keeping with his dream of being a jazz pianist and composer. His position at work is tenuous as he departs for London to attend his daughter Susan's wedding. Upon arrival at Heathrow Airport, he encounters Kate Walker, a single Londoner who works collecting statistics from passengers as they pass through the terminals. Tired and anxious to get to his hotel, Harvey brusquely dismisses her when she approaches him with the survey.
Arriving at his hotel Harvey discovers that he is the only wedding guest booked in there. He is hurt to discover that has his ex-wife Jean has rented a house to accommodate everyone who is attending from the States, except him. At the dinner on the night preceding the wedding, it becomes increasingly clear Harvey is now an outsider to his daughter's life and is being excluded from the clan around his ex-wife's new husband Brian. Their politeness towards him is insincere and makes him feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. Susan tells Harvey that as her step-father Brian has been more of a father to her in the last few years than he has, she is going to ask him to give her way at her wedding. Clearly upset, but accepting of her decision Harvey lies and tells Susan that he will be attending the ceremony but not the reception because he has to urgently return to the States.
Meanwhile, Kate is on a blind date that is not going well. After taking a phone call from her neurotic mother Maggie, she returns to the table to discover that her date has bumped into friends at the bar and invited them to join them. Feeling socially awkward and excluded from the group, she eventually goes home.
The following morning Harvey attends the wedding and then leaves immediately for the airport, having been excluded again and seated at the back of the church instead of the front in his true place next to his daughter. Owing to the heavy London traffic he is delayed and misses his flight back to the States. When he calls his boss to advise him he will be returning later than planned he is fired. Needing to drown his sorrows, Harvey goes to an airport bar and sees Kate who is there having a solitary lunch. Recognizing her from the day before, he apologizes for his rude behavior. She initially resists the attention he is paying her but soon they're both glad to finally have an honest, genuine conversation with someone.
Harvey, feeling lonely and not wanting to stay in an hotel by the airport, follows Kate and joins her on the train to Paddington station. He asks if he can walk her to her writing class on the South Bank. She accepts his offer and is pleased when he offers to wait for her and meet her afterwards. As they stroll along the South Bank River Thames, Harvey mentions he is missing Susan's wedding reception, and Kate urges him to go. He finally relents, but only if she will accompany him. Kate insists that she is not properly dressed for such an occasion, so Harvey buys her a dress and the two head to the Grosvenor House Hotel, where they are welcomed by Susan and squeezed in at two places on the children's table. When 'the-father-of-the-bride' is called upon to make a toast, Brian rises and begins to speak but Harvey interrupts claiming his right as her biological father. He then delivers a touching, eloquent speech that redeems him with his daughter and endears him to Kate.
Following the bride and groom's first wedding dance, the groom calls Harvey up to dance with his daughter. He happily does so, and then all the guests join them on the dance floor. Harvey is enjoying himself on the dance floor and Kate is left at the children's table, finding herself again in the same position as on the blind date. She starts to feel socially awkward and out of place, alone in the room full of strangers. Harvey is dancing and appears to have forgotten Kate. She bears her feelings as long as she can and eventually quietly leaves. Soon after Harvey returns to the table to find her gone.
Harvey, now looking for Kate, goes into the corridor and seeing her waiting for the elevator, he disappears into a side room where there is a piano and begins to softly play one of his own jazz compositions. She hears the music and follows it, finding Harvey smiling and waiting for her. He asks her to stay and return to the reception so he can dance her socks off. She agrees and they have a great time together.
Following the reception, Harvey and Kate walk and talk through London until dawn. Upon parting they exchange a single, gentle kiss and agree to meet at noon later that day. Back at his hotel, Harvey experiences serious heart palpitations having had to use the stairs as both lifts are out of order. He is taken to hospital. Forced to stay over night for treatment he misses the appointment with Kate, who turned up as agreed and waited for him. Upon being discharged the next day Harvey receives a call from his boss who has discovered that he needs Harvey to continue handling the account at work. He urges Harvey to return to as soon as possible. Harvey quits his job, deciding he prefers to remain in London and explore the possibility of a relationship with Kate. He tracks down Kate's work number and calls her to explain but she refuses to take the call. He goes looking for her at the airport and eventually tracks her down at her writing class. He explains why he missed their rendezvous and tells her that he wants to stay in London and begin a relationship with her. Overcautious about romance because of so much past emotional pain, Kate resists, but finally agrees to give things a chance to his suggestion that they see what the future might bring.
As they slowly stroll away along the South Bank, Harvey invites Kate to ask him the questions she would have asked him at the airport terminal, and this time, he happily answers, telling her his place of residence "...is in transition."Dustin Hoffman as Harvey Shine
Emma Thompson as Kate Walker
Eileen Atkins as Maggie Walker
Kathy Baker as Jean
James Brolin as Brian
Liane Balaban as Susan Shine
Daniel Lapaine as Scott Wright
Richard Schiff as Marvin
According to interviews with Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman in An Unconventional Love Story: The Making of Last Chance Harvey, a bonus feature on the DVD release of the film, both had been anxious to work with each other again ever since completing Stranger Than Fiction. When screenwriter/director Joel Hopkins approached her with the script, Thompson suggested he tailor it to accommodate Hoffman, who agreed to portray Harvey if Hopkins would allow his actors the leeway to improvise some of their scenes. Hopkins complied, and several of Harvey and Kate's conversations were ad-libbed while keeping within the dictates of the plot.
London locations seen in the film include Willesden Green, Belsize Park, Green Park, Maida Vale, the Millennium Dome on the Greenwich peninsula, the Millennium Bridge, the Royal National Theatre at Southbank Centre, Paddington station, Somerset House, St. John's Wood, Waterloo Bridge, and Heathrow Airport in Middlesex.
The film received mainly positive reviews and has a 71% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 153 reviews with an average rating of 6.2 out of 10. The film also has a Metacritic score of 57 out of 100, based on 27 reviews.
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times admitted "there’s something irresistible about watching two people fall in love, even in contrived, sniffle- and sometimes gag-inducing films like Last Chance Harvey . . . I reluctantly gave in to this imperfect movie, despite the cornball dialogue, pedestrian filmmaking, some wincing physical comedy and Mr. Hoffman’s habit of trying to win the audience over by simply staring at the camera with a hapless deadpan that says: Look at me, I’m still cute as a button, still cute as Benjamin in The Graduate, and I’m still kind of lost and still very much in need of your love."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called the film a "tremendously appealing love story surrounded by a movie not worthy of it. For Dustin Hoffman . . . it provides a rare chance to play ... an ordinary guy. For Emma Thompson, there is an opportunity to use her gifts for tact and insecurity . . . When Last Chance Harvey gets out of their way and leaves them alone to relate with each other, it's sort of magical. Then the lumber of the plot apparatus is trundled on, and we wish it were a piece for two players . . . [W]hat's good is very good . . . Pitch perfect. But then the dialogue fades down, and the camera pulls back and shows them talking and smiling freely, and the music gets happier, and there is a montage showing them walking about London with lots and lots of scenery in the frame . . . Last Chance Harvey has everything it needs but won't stop there. It needs the nerve to push all the way. It is a pleasure to look upon the faces of Hoffman and Thompson, so pleasant, so real. Their dialogue together finds the right notes for crossing an emotional minefield. They never descend into tear-jerking or cuteness. They are all grown up and don't trust love nearly as much as straight talk. Hopkins deserves credit for creating these characters. Then he should have stood back and let them keep right on talking. Their pillow talk would have been spellbinding."
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle observed, "One's enjoyment of Last Chance Harvey will depend on how suitable one considers the pairing of these characters and how felicitous one considers the pairing of these performers. The latter is most important, because if you enjoy Hoffman and Thompson together, you might be able to overlook the ghastly prospect of poor Kate's throwing her life away on this guy. To be sure, Thompson and Hoffman are watchable and engaging, and that counts for something. But they don't look right as a couple, and each is more interesting in his or her scenes apart than they are together."
Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly graded the film B-, calling it "a losers-in-love comedy with no big surprises, but in the age of Internet dating, the prospect of two strangers trying this valiantly to connect in public carries a dash of romantic heroism . . . These two deserved the intimate incandescence of their own Before Sunrise, rather than the slightly generic sentimentality of a cross-Atlantic Marty. But Hoffman and Thompson are each good enough to bring out a glow in the other."
Marjorie Baumgarten of the Austin Chronicle said, "With its thin plot and its title character an American abroad in London, Last Chance Harvey comes across as something like a Before Sunrise for the less-than-nubile set. Were that writer/director Hopkins' dialogue and visualization as scintillating as Richard Linklater's is in his Sunrise/Sunset romances. Of course, the combined acting brilliance of Hoffman and Thompson could elevate the hoariest of clichés and turn almost anything they touch golden – and that is most often the case with Last Chance Harvey. But no one's skills can transcend the kooky banality of a trying-on-dresses montage or burnish the somewhat creepy way in which Harvey first comes on to Kate. Still, these two prove a pleasure to watch, and their conversations are realistic troves of give and take . . . Middle-aged romances are, sadly, hard to find on the silver screen, so it's with some hesitation I pronounce Last Chance Harvey not up to snuff. Yet if we are to see any more romances starring characters old enough to have witnessed both Hoffman and Thompson winning Oscars, it's our responsibility to go out and support this one."
Claudia Puig of USA Today noted, "The film's biggest asset is the pitch-perfect performances of the two stars. They have a gentle rapport that unfolds convincingly after some initial testiness. It takes two consummate actors to make quickly escalating chemistry feel so natural. We find ourselves heartily rooting for them. Hoffman and Thompson rise above the sometimes obvious story arc, and the result is a surprisingly tender and appealing love story."
Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out New York rated the film three out of five stars and commented, "If anything can be said to be wrong with so benign an affair, it’s simply that Last Chance Harvey doesn’t feel much like cinema. Little excites the material visually; the film’s dully lensed Blighty lends nothing to the drama. But to watch Hoffman and Thompson work the lines is to witness two extremely unlikely stars recapture the essence of their appeal: The tiny neurotic is suddenly Romeo again, while the cool Brit melts in the light of affection. For some, that will be enough."
Dustin Hoffman was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy but lost to Colin Farrell in In Bruges. Emma Thompson was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy but lost to Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky.
Anchor Bay Entertainment released the film on a two-disc DVD set on May 5, 2009. On Disc One the film is presented in anamorphic widescreen format with an audio track in English and subtitles in English and Spanish. Bonus features include commentary with Joel Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman, and Emma Thompson, An Unconventional Love Story: The Making of Last Chance Harvey, and the theatrical trailer. Disc Two presents the film in fullscreen format.