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Last Holiday is a spirited comedy starring ex- hip hop diva Queen Latifah. Although no great shakes in the writing or acting departments, the show is pleasant, amusing and even moving thanks to the expansive personality of Latifah, who lights up every scene. Singers and performers have been crossing over into movie work since the 1920s, and those that can translate their knack for connecting with an audience -- mainly by finding a comfortable screen persona to play -- have enjoyed great success. Latifah the actress tackles an entire new demographic, much of which is "meeting" her for the first time. I think she'll find new converts to her fan club.
The story is a reworking of a 1950 Alec Guinness comedy, itself nothing particularly original. Latifah plays department store cookware associate Georgia Byrd, a churchgoing single woman who practices her culinary skills at home but can't eat the food because of her diet. She's too shy to approach the man of her dreams, fellow salesperson Sean Matthews (LL Cool J). When told that she has inoperable brain tumors and will die in four weeks, Georgia rebels against her unlived life. Quitting her job, She takes out all of her savings and flies to Karlovy Vary, a ritzy spa town in the Czech Republic.
Georgia's experiences a lightweight female empowerment fantasy, with plenty of material trimmings. Everything is first-class, from her presidential suite to her new wardrobe. Having decided to spend her final days speaking up and being heard, Georgia walks proudly into the hotel's dining room and immediately charms Chef Didier (Gérard Depardieu), one of her culinary idols. Depardieu is fine in the part, but we can see why he's ready to retire as an actor ... the role can't have been a challenge.
Georgia is mistaken for a mystery millionairess by a group of hotel guests gathering to seal a crooked political-financial deal. Greedy businessman Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton) and Senator Dillings (Giancarlo Esposito) want to learn more about Georgia, who makes a name for herself with a silly snowboarding lesson and by base jumping from the top of an enormous dam. Naturally, Georgia's newfound freedom to speak her mind and do as she pleases transforms all those around her. The hotel staff adores her for sticking up for working people and the pompous VIPs are disarmed by her gentle way of bringing unspoken truths to the surface. Through Georgia's example, Kragen's mistress Rochelle (Alicia Witt, no longer the blue-eyed pixie witch of Dune) regains her self esteem.
On the printed page Last Holiday is derivative and unoriginal, a romantic comedy into which one could plug almost any celebrity in need of an easy ride and a fast paycheck. The movie goes out of its way to be a non-threatening PG, and there are no angry, posturing attitudes (see the pit of woe that is Be Cool). In the wrong hands, almost every scene and bit part could easily be insulting. For instance, the movie identifies extreme luxuries as an inalienable entitlement for "nice people".
The fairy tale includes every escapist fantasy the filmmakers can think of: rich food (the hell with diets), fine clothes and beautiful people. Money becomes no object when Georgia gets rich playing her hunches at the roulette wheel; if the story had an iota of seriousness behind it, the message that gambling is the way to happiness would be offensive.
The defining difference is likely to be Wayne Wang, a thoughtful and sensitive director at home with both indie successes and more commercial fare like 2002's Maid in Manhattan, another unambitious star vehicle made surprisingly entertaining. Wang moves his camera with discretion and handles most the cast of stereotypes with a disarming simplicity. A "kooky" Indian doctor should be an annoyance but does no harm, and a ridiculously broad "iron pants" German housekeeper warms into a likeable character. Nobody's acting muscles are taxed but everyone looks good, even Timothy Hutton, who must go through the motions as a stock villain. The much re-written script by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman gives everyone an "out" --- by the final curtain every player becomes a nice guy.
Queen Latifah's sincerity and strength rubs off on her co-star LL Cool J, who plays boyfriend Sean as a dream sweetheart. Although few but Wayne Wang fans will realize it, Last Holiday is a director's film. So many miserable so-called comedies are made these days that a halfway decent picture like this one has no difficulty distinguishing itself.
The no-tears happy ending is as corny as all get-out, but the film survives as a pleasant diversion, like golden age Hollywood fare with no pretense except to entertain. And we're certainly ready to see Queen Latifah in more roles.
Paramount's Blu-ray disc of Last Holiday is a bright and colorful rendering of this light comedy that ends on a snowy New Years' Eve. The movie has the look and heft of an old-fashioned studio picture. For extras we're given two making-of fluff featurettes (lots of praise for director Wang and star Latifah) and a third in which the producers and writers -- all white males -- talk about the difficulty of shepherding the project for 23 years, until Latifah's involvement led to a gender change for the leading role. Two brief and unmourned deleted scenes appear, along with a trailer. All the extras are Standard Def except the trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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