Last Holiday

The gifted and charming comedienne Queen Latifah deserves a better role than the bunch of clichs she's asked to propagate about the wonders of American consumerism and the capitalist way of life in “Last Holiday,” the tale of a woman who's been diagnosed as terminally ill and decides to make the most of her remaining life with the help of her savings.

Loosely based on the Alec Guinness' 1950 vehicle, which was written by J. B. Priestley, “Last Holiday” was adapted from the British serio comedy by the team of Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, who have done better (Bob Zemeckis' “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) but also worse (“Wild, Wild West,” “Doc Hollywood”) before.

When the story begins, Georgia Byrd (Latifah) is a young woman living a small life tucked inside big dreams in a poor, black-dominated neighborhood of New Orleans. A shy cookware salesperson for a department store, Georgia handles knives and skillets with the flair of a master chef. At work, she's glancing romantic looks at her colleague, Sean Matthews (L L Cool J). Back at home, she cooks for herself, goes to church and lives a quiet, unremarkable life.

It's strain for Latifah to play this phase of the part because it runs against her natural exuberance and vivacious screen image. We eagerly await for Georgia to drop the subjugated facade and sure enough are rewarded when it happens after one reel.

When a misdiagnosis leads Georgia to believe that her days are numbered, she decides that if her fate is to go, she'll go with a bang–in grand style. As a result, she embarks on a dream holiday vacation to a grand resort in Europe. Holding that she has nothing to lose, Georgia undergoes a metamorphosis.

Her transformation affects everyone around her. Georgia's newly uninhibited personality shakes up the place's staff and guests alike, including vet chef (French star Gerard Depardieu) and her retail magnate boss Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton), who is initially convinced that she's a rival intent on sabotaging his business plans.

Cashing in her savings, Georgia heads for the beautiful Grand Hotel Pupp in the Central European resort village of Karlovy Vary (where a famous international film festival is annually held in July). From snowy slopes to spectacular spas, from delectable dinners to midnight balls, Georgia is determined to live a lifetime of fun for just a few weeks.

Georgia has always bent over backwards for everyone else. She's felt like her proper place was at the end of the line. Now, for the first time in her life, at what she thinks is the end of her life, Georgia's going to do something strictly for herself. She's going to live up to her name–like a queen. Latifah has said that she took the role for the chance offered “to get into the bones of someone very different from me. Most of the characters I've played are vocal and outgoing, and this was a chance to embody someone who is meek and unaccustomed to speaking her mind.”

Those familiar with film history will be able to detect all the elements of Latifah's formulaic role, a pastiche of the street-smart women, from Billy Holliday in “Born Yesterday” to Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl” and Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” all simple-minded, even anti-intellectual women who nonetheless are decent, honest, pragmatic, generous, and upbeat.

Below the surface, “Last Holiday” is another quintessentially American story of an ugly duckling that transforms into a swan. The sight of Latifah going on a shopping spree, or moving into the luxurious hotel, brings to mind the euphoria that Julia Roberts showed in “Pretty Woman,” when she went on a shopping spree in Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive, using Richard Gere's credit cards. Costume designer Daniel Orlandi dresses his leading lady in hot pink and red, and being a tall, big woman, Latifah overtowers her male counterparts not only symbolically but physically too.

Fortunately, most of the film shows the Latifah we like, the big-hearted woman who embraces life to the fullest, and in “Last Holiday,” she gets to show new skills on screen, including snowboarding, riding motorcycles, and skiing (stunt work is second-rate, perhaps due to budgetary constraints).

With no exception, the secondary characters are all caricatures that are defined by one attribute and whose function is to highlight Latifah's exuberant personality. In the course of the film, Georgia wins over her initial opponents, and she gets to give inspirational sermons about Big Business, politics, and even affairs of the heart.

The film's weakest scenes belong to Alicia Witt, as Ms. Burns, the abused mistress of married business tycoon Kragen, who not only “happens” to be Georgia's boss but also “happens” to vacation at the same place at the same time.

As he did in the smash romantic hit “Maid in Manhattan” (with Jennifer Lopez as a poor hotel maid who falls for the rich guy played by Ralph Fiennes), Wayne Wang tries to balance comedy and emotionalism. In “Last Holiday,” the sloppy emotionalism wins easily over comedy and romance in what's an overly familiar turf.

It's hard to believe that this is the same director who has spearheaded the Asian-American wave within the American Independent Cinema with such important works as “Chan Is Missing” and “Eat a Bowl of Tea,” and later the indie “Smoke.” Glossy, fluffy, and utterly inconsequential, “Last Holiday” belongs to Wang's femme-themed pictures, such as “Anywhere But Here,” with Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman as single mother-rebellious daughter, and as noted, “Maid in Manhattan.”

Wayne says he was drawn to the project because of its examination of the unexpected twists and turns of everyday life. He seems fascinated by the idea of living for the moment, as if every single day counts, and by the challenge of being responsible to the future without neglecting the opportunities of the present. Yes, “Last Holiday” is a pseudo-existential comedy about the preciousness of life and the unpredictability of fate.

For the role of Didier, the brilliant, volatile, mischievous, seasoned chef at the Grand Hotel Pupp, Wang struggled to get the larger-than-life Depardieu, the French icon who's in self-professed semi-retirement. It would be a shame, but “Last Holiday” could represent Depardieu's last American screen role.

As a food lover, Wang has dealt with culinary arts in his previous films, “Eat a Bowl of Tea” and “Dim Sum.” For this picture, to make the food look organic and rustic, he consulted with Susan Stockton of the Food Network in New York.

It's noteworthy that Wang makes the most of the notion of a French chef working in Central Europe during the winter, a man who has to be very creative in preparing dishes since he doesn't have access to all the produce he might have in Paris.

Endnote

The working-class neighborhoods of New Orleans provide a backdrop for the early part of the film, as the home of the frugal Georgia. Sadly, those neighborhoods became well-known around the world after the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina.