Last Chance Harvey

“Last Chance Harvey” is a film that brims with small delights. For example, did you know that Dustin Hoffman plays jazz piano? Maybe that’s one of the things I should have known about him, but I didn’t. His character in the movie is a musician, too, so the opening shots make sure we understand that those are Hoffman’s own fingers tickling those ivories.

Did you also know that Hoffman is a full three inches shorter than Emma Thompson, and that this height difference is even more pronounced when she wears heels, which she does for most of the film? It is true!

And what about Emma Thompson? I don’t wish to be unreasonable, but I’m afraid I must insist that she appear in more films. She’s too elegant and talented, beautiful yet down-to-earth, to appear onscreen so infrequently. She is one of the few actors who instantly improve everything they touch. Going forward, I wish to see Emma Thompson in at least 10 movies per year. Let’s make this happen, people.

Hoffman and Thompson, both justifiably revered in the acting community, do work in “Last Chance Harvey” that should be studied by their peers as an example of how to shine without shouting “Look how shiny I am!” The movie is small in scope: Two middle-aged singletons have a chance encounter, spend time together, and develop a relationship. That’s it. This simplicity could be the film’s downfall, but Hoffman and Thompson (aided by a good screenplay) make it sublime, a genuinely pleasant 90 minutes spent with two thoroughly engaging characters. It’s a romantic comedy, technically, but it doesn’t rely on dumb misunderstandings or petty self-absorption, which makes it unlike 99 percent of other romantic comedies.

Written and directed by Joel Hopkins (whose only previous film, 2001’s “Jump Tomorrow,” is another small-scale pleasure), our two main characters are at slightly different stages of desperation. Harvey Shine (Hoffman) is a commercial jingle writer who’s quickly being replaced by younger, more technologically proficient musicians. (“It’s sound design now, not music,” he says.) He’s in London to attend the wedding of his daughter (Liane Balaban), who feels closer to her stepfather (James Brolin) than she does to Harvey, to the extent that she prefers the other man walk her down the aisle. Harvey’s ex-wife (Kathy Baker) regards him with something approaching pity.

Meanwhile, native Londoner Kate Walker (Thompson) has a thankless job conducting surveys at Heathrow and lives too close to her clingy mother (Eileen Atkins). She seems to be at the age where she’s too old to hang out with the trendy bar crowd but too young to give up on the singles scene altogether. Hopkins cuts between two sequences of awkwardness: Harvey at the pre-wedding dinner, where he discovers the anti-theft tag is still on his suit coat; and Kate being set up with a slightly younger man and failing to fit in with his friends. There’s nothing wrong with Harvey or Kate; they just don’t belong where they are.

After a couple of near misses, the two meet at an airport bar. His flurry of setbacks has emboldened him (or made him feel like he’s got nothing to lose), and he gradually gets the reticent Kate (who is practical-minded and doesn’t talk to strange men in bars) to warm up to him.

Hopkins’ screenplay is witty and vivid enough, grounded in reality and human emotion; any two actors of ordinary competence could have made it watchable. (I only have a beef with the dumb subplot involving Kate’s mother and her suspicious new next-door neighbor, which adds fat to an otherwise lean script.) Hoffman and Thompson elevate the material, though. Harvey and Kate don’t even really meet until the film is a third over, yet we’re happy to watch them separately because even on their own they’re compelling characters.

Sometimes it’s hard to define the difference between actors who are great and those who are merely good, but you can see it in Thompson and Hoffman, who masterfully inhabit their characters in ways that are not showy or grand — Harvey and Kate have no “quirks” about them — but that establish them as fully formed, recognizable human beings. Harvey’s speech at his daughter’s wedding reception might be the best example. On the page, it’s a good, not great, monologue. On the screen, it’s surprisingly touching, thanks to Hoffman’s quiet, humble performance. He and Thompson are some of the best in the biz, kids. See ’em now while they’re still cranking out winning stuff like this.

A- (1 hr., 32 min.; PG-13, "brief strong language," which usually means an F-word -- but if there is one, I didn't catch it. I noted a few other mild profanities, nothing out of PG range. .)