A gender-twisting remake of the 1950 Alec Guiness picture, "Last Holiday" stars Queen Latifah (2005's "Beauty Shop
") as Georgia Byrd, a reserved and lonely thirty-something who works in the cookware section of a New Orleans department store. After accidentally hitting her head on the corner of a cupboard door while finally talking to her crush, handsome co-worker Sean (a bland LL Cool J), she is horrified to discover that a harmless CAT scan shows three rare advanced tumors in her brain. With only three weeks to live, Georgia takes out her life savings and travels to a ritzy ski resort in Europe, vowing to do as many of the things that she was always afraid to do before her time is up.
"Last Holiday" has a corker of a premiseone that, in the right hands, could be thought-provoking, uplifting, and emotionally heartbreaking all at oncebut doesn't do it justice on any of these levels. Watching the film, which is bogged down by sitcom situations and an arbitrary subplot that takes up too much time involving a sleazy retail magnate (Timothy Hutton) also vacationing at the resort, it is impossible to guess that it was directed by someone with the stature of Wayne Wang (2005's "Because of Winn-Dixie
,"). Wang is able to wonderfully combine humor with pathos (take a look at 1999's "Anywhere but Here
" for a prime example), but whether his own fault, the fault of screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman (2000's "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas
"), or the fault of staying true to the original film from the '50s, "Last Holiday" mistakes over-the-top silliness for genuine human comedy.
Rising above the material in her most charming turn since 1998's "Living Out Loud
," Queen Latifah almost single-handedly saves the picture. The truth that she finds in her initially soft-spoken character's war of emotions after discovering her drastically shortened lifespan is poignantly played; she acts as one imagines a person might if they felt healthy on the outside, but were told they only had three weeks to live. And, as Latifah's Georgia starts trying new things during her vacation like jumping from the top of a dam and skiing down a steep mountain, making new friends, and generally coming into her own as a person, the actress radiates with a joy of performing and a keen sense of comic timing. You know an actor has that special something when they are able to be funny and touching simultaneously, and Latifah ably reaches that rarefied plane.
Even with the annoyance of Kragen every time he appearshe runs a chain of department stores Georgia worked at, but thinks she is a rival intent on one-upping him rather than a lowly employee"Last Holiday" was a pleasant enough affair for over an hour. There is a great scene that shows what the film could have been where Georgia stares herself down in the mirror and contemplates the life she has led. "What's most important isn't how you start life, but how you finish it," she says, and it's an existential notion worth living by. Unfortunately, things plummet to the ground and below in the third act with countless strained twists of fate and a hotel staff (including Gerard Depardieu and Susan Kellerman as, respectively, a kindly chef and humorless floor-valet) that get too cute for comfort.
The most fatal pitfall, however, is a purely Hollywood ending that would be enraging if it wasn't such an obvious foregone conclusion. Without giving it awaylet's be honest, though; who doesn't know how this one will end?the movie withers away and dies the second a key revelation occurs. It doesn't matter whether the 1950 version featured the same outcome or not; how it is handled here feels egregious, distasteful, tacked-on, and introduces plot holes and added conflict that director Wayne Wang doesn't even try to explain himself out of. Didn't the makers of "Last Holiday" realize that there was a way of staying faithful to the plot's natural progression and still ending on a beautifully bittersweet and comforting note? Apparently not, as they roll out one contrivance after another and cheapen the entire film.
"Last Holiday" isn't an all-out lost causeLatifah alone would be worth watching if the script's dumbness didn't get in the wayand even manages to get the viewer to ponder what they would do if put in Georgia's unenviable shoes. The film achieves this latter result with less time paid to personal rumination and more time paid to physical hijinks, which just goes to show how strong the premise is on its own. Still, it is increasingly difficult to not feel toyed with and talked down to by the end. Something tells me that a foreign film or indie pic on the same subject would go in a substantially different direction, and be better for it. In taking a very wrong turn indeed, the syrupy "Last Holiday" merely condescends its ambitions.