Unlikely as it sounds, the source of this raucous Queen Latifah vehicle can be traced to a wry, and decidedly cynical J. B. Priestley screenplay originally filmed in 1950 with Alec Guinness in the lead role. Aside from the gender reversal, the basic story remains the same; but the 2006 version has been buffed to such a dazzling sheen that Priestley’s rough edges have all but disappeared. Latifah plays New Orleans department-store clerk Georgia Byrd, whose minor head injury is misdiagnosed as a terminal illness that gives her just a few weeks to live. Determined to make the most of whatever time remains to her, Georgia quits her job and takes the dream vacation she always wanted, going overseas to a posh European resort. She makes indelible impressions on everyone she meets, including the obnoxious retail magnate (Timothy Hutton) in whose store she worked for so long. Director Wayne Wang (Maid in Manhattan) exhibits a flair for the slick, common-woman-shows-wealthy-snobs-what-life-is-all-about comedy that animates this predictable farce. The supporting cast -- which includes one of Latifah’s hip-hop contemporaries, LL Cool J, as well as versatile character actor Giancarlo Esposito -- provide ample backup to the leading lady. But make no mistake, this is the Queen's film. The dusty situations and gags seem fresh when the always-game Latifah goes through her paces; she’s all that and a whole lot more.
There's a problem casting Queen Latifah in such a light-hearted comedy with such a downbeat premise. On the one hand, the character needs to grieve and bemoan her sudden change in circumstances; on the other, the actress must display the kind of contagious, carefree attitude that plays well in trailers. Last Holiday doesn't achieve this balance, offering only a few throwaway moments of introspection to remind viewers of the stakes, but it should appeal plenty well to Latifah's fans. For one, it celebrates the "big is beautiful" ethos Latifah brings to most of her roles, making her frumpy department-store clerk the improbable love interest for hunky LL Cool J -- even before she's transformed by her new carpe diem confidence. If Wayne Wang's film were content just being a romantic character study of a terminal patient finding her bliss, that would be one thing. But to beef up the plot, Latifah's profligate spending gets her confused for a person of influence, and her idyllic ski resort becomes backdrop for a mistaken-identity farce involving a billionaire (Timothy Hutton), his mistress, and a handful of other acquaintances, inexplicably and coincidentally transplanted to Eastern Europe. In the process, the film's original intention is hijacked by the reliable Hollywood chestnut that a straight-talking outsider can always purify wayward souls. And just so there's never a moment's doubt about either Latifah's world-class appeal or the enlightenment of her European hosts, everyone who meets her is utterly enchanted, leaving only Hutton to bitterly resent all the attention. Last Holiday goes down easily enough, but by playing it too safe, Wang proves unworthy of Latifah's natural charisma, which could have fueled a much better film.
|Sound:||[Dolby AC-3 Surround Sound]|