"Last Holiday," director Wayne Wang's remake of a 1950 British Comedy starring Alec Guiness in the title role, is a surprisingly amusing diversion blessed, not by Wang's direction, but by the energetic, warm and lovable performance of Queen Latifah.
Latifah is rapidly becoming an actress who can be trusted to carry a film, even a remarkably formulaic, predictable film that should, by all accounts, be written off as a bland failure, but, in Latifah's hands turns into a gentle, funny, and life-affirming film that certainly doesn't require much thought but will evoke laughter and possibly a tear or two along the way.
Latifah plays Georgia Byrd, a shy, somewhat insecure woman who works in the cookware department of the New Orleans location of a major department store chain more concerned with profit than customer service. Georgia is a quiet, churchgoing woman who sings in her church choir and spends most of her nights cooking gourmet dishes and watching television cooking shows "training" to be a chef. Her life is filled with "possibilities," as evidenced by her possibilities book...a scrapbook filled with dreams of marriage, cooking, vacations, and adventures.
An accident on the job leads to a terminal diagnosis, and the always faithful Georgia gives it all to God before cashing in her IRA and inheritance and heading off to live the life she's always been too boxed in to live.
Despite the fact that there's not really an original scene anywhere to be found in "Last Holiday," nearly everything in the film works on a certain level. The credit for this largely goes to Latifah, whose performances have mostly shone when she could be a variation of herself...over-the-top, larger than life, and full of life. In "Last Holiday," however, Latifah brings balance to a character that, over the course of the film, learns how to live life, trust her voice, and not be so afraid of herself.
It is not so much that Georgia changes over the course of the film, but more that how Georgia sees herself changes over the course of the film. The audience is, essentially, watching Georgia's inner transformation manifest externally.
Georgia heads off to Karlovy Vary, an actual city in the Czech Republic to bring her "possibilities" to life in luxury surrounded her idol, Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu) and the wealthy and powerful.
Of course, this is all a bit too neat to be realistic, but again Latifah makes it work anyway. Staying at this very same resort is Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton), who owns the department store chain, his mistress Ms. Burns (Alicia Witt), a Senator who cancelled on her church the previous week (Giancarlo Esposito), and a Congressman (Michael Nouri) thrown in for good measure.
"Last Holiday" is remarkably predictable. With what I've told you here, you can accurately predict the outcome of the film. Georgia, with her refreshing honesty, down-to-earth approach, and gentle spirit quickly wins over even the most stubborn of hotel staff (personified in the character of Ms. Gunther, wonderfully played by Sally Kellerman) and all except that dreaded Mr. Kragen, who seems baffled as to why, despite all his money, this woman has caught the attention of everyone around him.
"Last Holiday" works because of the performances. It could have easily failed and, in fact, probably should have. The story is predictable, the various scenarios are often quite silly and unrealistic, and the ultimate resolution is far too pat to be considered satisfying. Yet, the entire cast seems to realize what kind of film this is supposed to be and so the film ends up playing much like Georgia's character...relaxed, unassuming and with a complete lack of self-awareness.
When was the last time you saw a scene take place on a building's ledge and it actually worked? Admit it...this sort of scene is usually histrionic, stupid or the sign of a director desperate for laughs. Here, somehow, it actually works.
There are no brilliant performances in "Last Holiday," and I sincerely doubt you'll see any award nominations for the film. Yet, the film possesses a marvelous ensemble performance with wonderful chemistry throughout the film.
Queen Latifah has in Georgia her best performance outside "Chicago." Her transformation is simply heartwarming to watch as we see her inner beauty finally expressed outward. The words Latifah and restrained are not words I ever thought I'd utter in the same sentence, but Latifah's restrained performance as Georgia is masterful because it allows the audience to fully appreciate her blossoming throughout the film.
While "Last Holiday" is clearly Latifah's film, the supporting performers are strong in themselves, especially Alicia Witt's Ms. Burns, who undergoes her own remarkable transformations, along with Kellerman's Ms. Gunther, Hutton's Kragen and a warm, funny performance from Depardieu as the refreshing Chef Didier.
Films like "Last Holiday" are typically a disaster. They feature predictable plots, predictable dialogue, and bland, predictable performances. It is as if everyone involved with the film is content to make an average film that will earn a few bucks and find life on DVD. Yet, "Last Holiday" is different. In "Last Holiday," Queen Latifah leads the cast as they transcend the dated, predictable material to create a film that is practically the definition of a "feel good" film.
I appreciate films like "Munich" that challenge the way I see the world and make me think.
I appreciate films like "King Kong" that razzle dazzle with technology and every gimmick in the book.
I appreciate films like "Brokeback Mountain" that explore new cinematic territories.
On a certain level, I even appreciate films such as "Hostel", which allow me to define my boundaries, explore my values, and learn my limits.
However, sometimes I just want to surrender to a film. I want to laugh. I want to cry. I want to celebrate life and, for me, film helps me do that better than almost any other medium. "Last Holiday" is a celebration film. Sometimes, the best thing a film can do is make me feel good about life.
Last night, I saw "Last Holiday." Here I am, today, sitting here remembering Georgia, smiling, hearing Georgia's words and, most of all, feeling good about life.