Monday, September 7, 2009

Last Chances

This holiday weekend I found myself knocked out with a cold and wasn't up for much beyond a movie and a good read. The movie I chose, Last Chance Harvey, and the novel I was finishing, That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo, turned out to have a lot in common.

Both protaganists are men of a certain age, and they have reached a time of reckoning. It sneaks up on them. Both have complicated relationships with the women in their lives. For Harvey Shine, played by Dustin Hoffman, it's his daughter he doesn't quite know how to relate to. For Jack Griffin in Russo's novel, his mother makes his life difficult, both when she's alive and even once she's not.

Hoffman's Harvey has had opportunities to succeed in life, yet he seems to always be getting in his own way. He arrives in London for the wedding of his daughter, Susan, and turns up at the rehearsal dinner in the wrong suit and spends much of the evening trying in vain to salvage a project at work, where's he's been told he's at the end of the line. The reunion between he and Susan is touching but painful--they both love each other and want desperately to reconnect but there is so much distance between them that it's almost impossible. When Harvey sees his former wife and her new husband acting as a family unit with Susan and her husband to be, he feels as though he has no business being there at all. The parallel plot of the life of Kate Walker--played by Emma Thompson--intersects with Harvey's at various points in the film, and finally they converse at length and find themselves changed. Kate helps Harvey to finally take action to repair his bond with his daughter, and in turn he helps her open herself up to possibility again, even if he falters at some points. Kate sums up her life and her reaction to him when she says, "It's just that I'm so accustomed to disappointment. I guess I'm angry with you for trying to take that away from me."

As for Jack Griffin, his story begins and ends with weddings, with the year between them almost doing him in. As he returns to Cape Cod, he is flooded with memories of visiting there each summer with his parents, who are the sort of people who should have never had a child. His father is an emotional teenager who takes out his rage at his overbearing, narcissistic wife by becoming a serial adulterer. While it hurts her, she gets even, and then some. Young Jack is the real casualty in this drama. Although he outwardly deals with his mother with humor and perspective and even manages to intellectualize the most painful parts of his childhood, when his father dies he loses his bearings. His wife, Joy, is from the opposite kind of family: he is an only child, while she one of five; his parents are liberal academics who move around constantly, while hers are bedrock Republicans who live in a gated community. He is attracted to her stability, but eventually resents her for what he perceives as a fixed view of the way their lives should be lived, and things unravel quickly.

Both Jack and Harvey are outsiders. We don't know exactly why Harvey is so, although it's painfully clear from the first scene that he is always a beat off, and his spotty career as a studio musician serves as a perfect metaphor. As for Jack, he is a bit player in the grander story of his parents' marriage, which for all its flaws is still the most important narrative in both of their lives, far exceeding any interest they have in their son. Both protaganists spend a tremendous amount of time inside their own heads, and it's not until they turn outwards that either of them have any hope of finding their way. Both stories are difficult to experience, yet in the end they demonstrate we can all find our way back to what matters if we are brave enough to try.

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