Saturday, November 22, 2014

Two Love Stories, Separated by Sixty-plus Years - and Talent.

I don’t suppose it matters — because the picture is so much fun — but why is The Shop Around the Corner set so resolutely in Budapest? Is it because Ernst Lubitch was feeling homesick for Europe?  Is it because the story, even by 1940 standards, is so very much a contrived fairy tale that the studio believed no one would swallow it unless it was presented as happening in a far-off land? 

It’s very curious. This is the only odd or off-key note in the whole silly, wonderful movie. We are never shown any views of the city, the shop could be located almost anywhere in the world. Indeed, the names of the characters are Hungarian… but that’s where it stops. In all other aspects the employees of this shop are as American as apple pie. After all, we’re talking principally Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullivan and Frank Morgan — the Wonderful Wizard himself, out of Oz and balancing a small department store against a faithless wife. Only two of the supporting characters — including Felix Bressart doing essentially the same things that he did in Lubitch’s Ninotchka just a year before — have even remotely foreign accents, and the young messenger boy sounds as if he was pulled straight off the streets of New York. None of them would seem out of place if the picture was set in say, Chicago at the turn of the century. 

Everything about The Shop Around the Corner is so very damned American that it’s jarring — it pulls you out of the story every time a reference is made to Budapest. It makes no sense! Why, O Why did they do it? 

There’s never any doubt in The Shop Around the Corner as to where the love story is going, what’s going to happen next and how it’s all going to turn out… it’s the kind of picture that the audience can and does write in their heads alongside the action unfolding onscreen. But Lubitch has such a lightness of touch that we can never take our eyes off the thing even when we can practically recite the dialogue alongside the actors. In one sense, the performances are unremarkable: the cast is doing just exactly what they are noted for always doing, bringing to the screen exactly the same qualities that they always bring — but when you’re talking about Stewart and Morgan especially, that thing is always a great pleasure to watch. As for Margaret Sullivan’s Klara — she comes across as more than a little bit of a spoiled brat, and in this she may simply have been playing herself. 

It doesn’t measure up to Ninotchka, but then, what could? If Ninotchka is a beautiful lemon meringue pie of a movie, then The Shop Around the Corner is a perfectly serviceable chocolate cream. Bring a bib and tuck in. It’s nothing you haven’t eaten before or won’t eat again, but it’s tasty nonetheless.

So, if The Shop Around The Corner is a completely artificial and contrived love story that somehow works wonderfully as a cinematic confection, why is Last Chance Harvey, made sixty years later when you would have thought that evolution would have amounted to something, a completely artificial and contrived love story that stinks like last year’s cheese? It is at least as sincerely and skillfully acted; ah, but “sincerity” is the one thing director / screenwriter Joel Hopkins isn’t guilty of.

Dustin Hoffman plays a past-middle-age sad sack with essentially nothing to live for. The first half-hour of the movie is spent more or less gleefully driving spikes into Hoffman’s neck, hammer blow after hammer blow. Just when things are at their worst, here comes a “chance” (Hah!) encounter with Emma Thompson to save his life and make everything All Better. Ms. Thompson works in the international airport in a capacity that is elusive to say the least. Essentially, her character works in the airport because that’s the only place that the Hoffman character could reasonably expect to cross paths with her.

It gets worse, coincidence piled on improbability. In real life, the Thompson character would call the cops on Hoffman — but no, they walk. As they walk, they talk. This takes up a good chunk of the movie, and it’s the best part of the thing… the only part that gives Last Chance Harvey at least a reasonable claim to being a movie for adults, about adults, with no explosions in it. As noted, the performances are as flawless as you would expect. Hoffman is as vested in this as in any of his roles, while Thompson basically has to look tolerant and give a wistful smile every now and then.

At no point is there any kind of a cynical twist that would lend at least a hair of realism to the thing. Even The Shop Around the Corner has an affair and a misunderstanding in it: Last Chance Harvey is just gushing sweetness and light. The final blow occurs just at the end. Unsatisfied with providing phony happy endings for everyone else in the picture, Hopkins backtracks and provides Thompson’s mother (the great and woefully misused Eileen Atkins) with a phony happy ending of her own. Because nobody is compete without love, right? And everybody’s got to be complete, right? Anything less and it wouldn’t be a product of the insipid and unforgivably pandering Modern Cinema. There is a genuine sophistication buried deep, deep, way down deep under The Shop Around The Corner; but beneath Last Chance Harvey there’s only emptiness and manipulation.

— Freder

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