A Rabbinic Take on 'Last Chance Harvey'

The following review is part of the Kosher Movies project, in which Rabbi Herb Cohen gleans life lessons from the world of film.

"Life is not a straight line" a friend remarked to me when I was experiencing a personal disappointment. He was trying to shift my perspective, to encourage me to see things differently. He wanted me to get out of a mental rut.

Sometimes people get stuck and can't move forward after a setback. There is a saying in Jewish tradition that suggests one approach to overcome inertia: "he who changes his place changes his fortune." This is what happens to Harvey Shine in Last Chance Harvey. He travels from New York to London and experiences a change of perspective. He sees things differently because he is in a new environment, free of old memory tapes of failure.

Harvey, played by Dustin Hoffman, composes jingles for an ad agency in Manhattan. He had thoughts of becoming a jazz pianist, but life intervened and he became a very good writer of jingles. While traveling to London for his daughter's wedding, he reflects that he has not been a very good father or husband. Moreover, he is on the ropes professionally, on the verge of being replaced by a younger executive more in tune with contemporary music. Overall, his life is in shambles.

Across the ocean lives Kate Walker, a single Londoner played by Emma Thompson, who also has had her share of disappointments, including a husband who left her and a dead end job with little excitement in her life. She spends a good deal of each day tending to the emotional needs of her mother, who is fearful of her mysterious neighbors. The movie cleverly juxtaposes Harvey and Kate's daily frustrations as each experiences the day in their respective countries.

Serendipitously, Harvey and Kate meet in London. At first there is little chemistry between them, but as the conversation continues they connect with one another, sharing each other's idiosyncrasies and disappointments. Most important, they actively listen to one another. It is an encounter which makes both of them feel important and needed by the other.

Their relationship deepens when Harvey informs Kate that, after the wedding, he does not plan on staying for his daughter's wedding reception because of business pressures. Kate strongly encourages him to be present at this special moment in his daughter's life, and Harvey listens to her. At the wedding, Harvey makes an eloquent toast to the bride, which emotionally strikes the right chord, bringing him closer to the daughter with whom he has had a rocky relationship for many years. It is clear that Kate's influence makes Harvey a better person.

Kate and Harvey are two people whose personal lives have been filled with disappointment. They carry lots of emotional baggage. Moreover, they both recognize that getting older inevitably means that people have less options, fewer opportunities for happiness. They have an acute sense that time is passing and cannot be retrieved. They understand that joy comes when we take advantage of the moment, when we finally realize that it is foolish to pass up an opportunity for a loving connection.

Jewish tradition consistently urges us take advantage of the moment. Our Sages say: "if not now, then when?" Furthermore, they state that when you have an opportunity to do something good, you should do it now and not postpone it, for the opportunity may never come again. In particular, Judaism encourages men and women to marry and avoid a solitary existence. Even when child-bearing is not possible, it is important to live a shared life, for a shared life refines one's character and makes one a less selfish human being.

Last Chance Harvey reminds us that it is never too late to find love, never too late to begin again, never too late to shift one's priorities. Kate and Harvey are role models of love developing out of honest conversation as well as physical attraction. Kate and Harvey meet in the mind and in the heart.

Rabbi Herb Cohen was a principal at Jewish high schools across America for three decades. He now resides in Israel and blogs weekly about the intersection of faith and film at KosherMovies.com.