Last Holiday isn’t terrible, but it’s within spitting distance. The script is so bland it could belong to one of those ABC Family Channel movies “starring” the third lead from a cancelled sitcom. The movie is a remake of a 1950 Alec Guinness film, but it hardly needed to be a remake to feel like one; every character and every situation in the film has appeared in dozens of others over the intervening half-century. It all coasts on a few successful sight gags and Queen Latifah’s charm; fortunately this woman’s charm can support a lot of ballast.
Latifah plays Georgia Byrd, a prim, dowdy, coupon-clipping spinster who works as a clerk in the cookware department of a New Orleans department store and sings in her church choir. Georgia spends her evenings preparing elaborate dinners and feeding them to the little boy who lives next door, but she won’t indulge in the rich fare herself; when the meals are complete, she sits with the boy and dutifully eats her Lean Cuisine entrees. Her pleasure is all in the cooking; she dreams of being a chef and keeps a wish book full of photographs of the meals she’s prepared and others she plans to make and culinary schools she’d like to attend, but so far she hasn’t gotten any farther than a weekly cooking demonstration at the store, and now her manager’s ruthless cost-cutting measures threaten to shut down even that. The wish book also contains photos of Sean (LL Cool J), a co-worker at the store on whom she has a long-standing crush that is clearly mutual, yet she’s too unsure of her own appeal to act on it. Georgia is so afraid of stepping out of line and drawing attention to herself that her entire life has become a series of missed opportunities and unpursued goals. But everything changes when an accident at work leads to a medical exam, and the doctor tells her she has three weeks to live. She mopes a little at first, then cashes in her IRA and the savings bonds her mother left her and flies to Prague to stay at an elegant hotel and eat gourmet dinners prepared by her idol, Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu). She throws money around like it’s nothing, planning to spend her entire savings before she checks out, which leads everyone around to assume this quiet, working-class doormat is wealthy and powerful. Hijinks ensue.
Anyone who’s seen the promos for the movie or just read the paragraph above can skip seeing Last Holiday and still know exactly how it plays out and, unless they love watching Queen Latifah, they probably should. I could tell you that Giancarlo Esposito is surprisingly likable as a corrupt but-not-really-bad senator or gripe about how Timothy Hutton keeps popping up in loathsome-jackass roles like the one he has here, but what would be the point? This is all Latifah’s show and, while she deserves a better star vehicle, she’s still great to watch when she gets the chance to cut loose. The only other performers who make a real impression are Alicia Witt, who plays Hutton’s mistress, and Susan Kellermann, who plays a hotel employee that at first seems like a standard-issue Germanic harridan but later turns out to be funny and full of surprises.
Last Holiday is slow in getting started; the opening scenes feel perfunctory, put there only to establish the situation; they’re visually inert and edited with no rhythm. Things pick up a little in Prague, and there’s some fun to be had, but something is still a little off. The movie skips some of the obligatory Cinderella scenes — Latifah goes dress-shopping but we never see her getting her hair done or learning how to apply make-up before she makes her glamorous entrance, and when she checks into the hotel’s presidential suite, there’s no obligatory this-place-is-so-nice scene; we never even get to see the suite’s layout. Some of these scenes were filmed — Paramount has released at least one still photo from the missing makeover scene — and undoubtedly cut for time; at an hour and 52 minutes the movie is still much longer than it needs to be.
The film’s script is by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, the writing team that previously gave us such gems as Wild Wild West and the Jim Carrey How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and who are undoubtedly responsible for the lame, recycled gags, but why is Wayne Wang stuck directing this tripe? Wang first came to my attention at about the same time as Ang Lee, another Chinese director who works frequently in the United States (Lee is from Taiwan, Wang from Hong Kong), and it seemed initially as if they might have parallel careers. Lee followed The Wedding Banquet with prestigious, widely admired films like Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense and Sensibility; Wang followed The Joy Luck Club with less widely admired, but still ambitious films like Smoke and Chinese Box. But somewhere along the line their paths diverged, and Lee wound up directing movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain while Wang toiled on Maid in Manhattan and Because of Winn-Dixie. It’s clear that Lee is the more gifted director, but Wang didn’t start out as a hack, and it’s depressing that he seems to be turning into one. If he continues to take on unpromising projects like Last Holiday and then phone in his direction the way he does here, it’s inevitable.
I’ve been a Queen Latifah fan for around 15 years, since I first heard a couple of singles off All Hail the Queen and through the years of “Living Single” and her up-and-down career in movies, and for me Last Holiday was watchable, but that may not be the case for everyone. Those who are immune to her charisma should probably avoid this movie. And maybe spend the time trying to figure out what kind of jerk doesn’t like Queen Latifah.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Last Holiday / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()