"Depend on it, sir: Nothing so concentrates the mind like the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight." – Samuel Johnson
Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) lives in New Orleans, with a carefully-structured life that suggests she'd probably like her life to be less carefully structured. She sings in the choir – but stays quiet at the back. She works in the housewares section at Kragen's department store – but never gets up the courage to ask her cute co-worker Sean (LL Cool J) out. She cooks gourmet meals for the kid next door, Darius (Jascha Washington) – and then eats her Lean Cuisine entrees as he tucks into what she's slaved over. The morning Georgia finally decides to ask Sean out, the attempt turns into a disaster as she whacks her head on a cabinet – and turns even worse when a subsequent CAT scan reveals that Georgia's going to die of a rare brain illness within three weeks. So, if she's going to die, Georgia figures, why not live?
Directed by Wayne Wang, Last Holiday is a remake of a 1950 film that starred Alec Guinness. And part of what makes this reiteration of the story so refreshing is that when you think of current film stars with a resemblance to Alec Guinness, you do not probably immediately think of Queen Latifah. What also works in the film's favor is that it takes two performers who we're used to seeing enjoying the acting equivalent of playing high, wild horn solos and has them instead play more muted tones that mesh well with the gentle feel of the film. Last Holiday is a rare thing – light comedy that's actually funny, a spiritual and heartfelt film that doesn't drown you in syrupy simplicity and not just led by a charismatic and funny lead actress but also with a great team of supporting players for her to bounce off.
Wayne Wang actually has a perfect touch with this material; halfway through many scenes in Last Holiday, your enjoyment gives way as you pause and recognize how well made they actually are. When Georgia snaps and starts bemoaning her fate during church, it's a chance to turn an interior monologue into a rollicking gospel musical number. But at the same time, it's not just comedy: Wang manages to make the scene funny (which it is) but he also makes it look and feel like a nervous breakdown (which it is). When Georgia decides to liquidate her savings and go for the red-carpet treatment at the legendary European spa and resort Hotel Pupp, her willingness to go through cash like there's no tomorrow – which, for her, there isn't – makes the staff and guests think she's a very important person. This brings a touch of Being There into Last Holiday – especially after the dramatically convenient coincidence that the CEO of Kragen Department Stores, Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton) is entertaining Senator Billings (Giancarlo Esposito) and Congressman Stewart (Michael Nouri) at the Pupp.
Everyone is taken by Georgia's appetite for life; when she's told that the Pupp's master cook Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu, in a nicely-played minor part) never repeats his specials for the evening, she figures she'll just have one of everything. Everyone thinks Georgia is, to paraphrase the poet Stevie Smith, not drowning but waving, and she's willing to have some fun with it – and even if this part of the film is less of an acting challenge for Latifah, it's still fun to see her milk the part for every drop. It's also great how Wang has put great faces and actors in smaller parts. Wang (and screenwriters Jeffery Price and Peter S. Seaman) have great bits for Ms. Gunther, the hatchet-faced hotel valet (Susan Kellerman), the blunt base-jumping instructor (Alban Klose), the apologetic Dr. Gupta (Ranjit Chowdry) and Kragen's assistant/mistress Ms. Burns (Alicia Witt). And in the small, thankless role of Sean, LL Cool J is the epitome of a supporting actor – gracious, giving and game, willing to look foolish and doing a convincing job of playing a shy man who just happens to have amazing abs.
There's a pretty weird disconnect in Wayne Wang's discography – how do you go from the Paul Auster collaboration Smoke or the explicit shot-on-video The Center of the World to fluff like Maid in Manhattan and Because of Winn-Dixie? What kind of director can give us both Queen Latifah's you-go-girl performance in Last Holiday and Molly Parker's raw, sexually omnivorous work in The Center of the World? But Wang is walking a line few directors manage: now and then he makes money, and now and then he makes art, and while the two may not meet, he treats both with care and craft. No one is going to confuse Last Holiday with Citizen Kane, even if both hinge around snow-laden landscapes. At the same time, in an era when most comedies pander and caper and insult the audience – the pious-but-puerile Diary of a Mad Black Woman or the squalling, sprawling idiocy of Cheaper by the Dozen 2 – Last Holiday is a pleasure as rare as it is disposable.