Queen Latifah stars in “Last Holiday” as a meek woman who comes into her own only when she learns she has three weeks to live.
These three words — Queen Latifah stars — are crucial to the film’s tolerability.
Unabashedly feel-good and life-affirming, the film from director Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club,” “Maid in Manhattan”) turns ridiculous toward the end but mostly manages to avoid being completely maudlin thanks to the luminous Latifah.
She’s actually more effective in her early scenes as a shy cookware saleswoman at a New Orleans department store. This is a real departure for the actress who’s best known for sassy, swaggering roles in “Chicago” (which earned her an Oscar nomination), “Beauty Shop” and “Bringing Down the House,” so it’s a lovely surprise to see her bring beauty and sad grace to a character who’s shy and insecure.
Based on the 1950 movie of the same name starring Alec Guinness, this comedy-drama hybrid finds Latifah’s Georgia Byrd living a quiet, solitary life with dreams of becoming a chef and marrying the co-worker with whom she’s secretly smitten (LL Cool J, also playing against type — he keeps his shirt on the whole time).
One day, after she hits her head at work, a CAT scan reveals she has a virus that has spread so significantly through her brain, it will kill her within weeks. (The moments in which she learns of her diagnosis are played awkwardly for laughs, but Ranjit Chowdhry is likably jumpy as her nervous doctor.)
Realizing she must seize the opportunity to experience everything she’s been afraid to do her whole life, Georgia takes all her money out of the bank, cashes in her bonds and flies first class to a luxurious European hotel to meet her idol, the legendary Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu). The friendship they strike up over a shared love of food is sweet and very believable, even when Didier compares her in heavily accented English to the turnip, “the self-made woman of ve-ge-tables.”
The script from Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman features the requisite makeover montage (set to a dance version of “I Feel Pretty”), and the structure continues to feel episodic from there, with one adventure after another. There’s the wacky snowboarding scene, the wacky spa treatment sequence, the wacky base-jumping-from-the-top-of-a dam experience.
Implausibly, Georgia runs into all sorts of people at the hotel with whom she has a connection with from home, including Matthew Kragen, the singularly greedy owner of the department store chain where she worked (played with wiry intensity by Timothy Hutton), and the slick Louisiana senator (Giancarlo Esposito) who was supposed to have appeared at her church the previous Sunday, but flaked.
These people and everyone else — including Kragen’s young mistress (Alicia Witt), the entire hotel staff and Chef Didier himself — mistake Georgia for someone wealthy, powerful and eminently alive. They’re drawn to her, and in their midst she blossoms, which is a joy to watch.
But she also manages to solve their problems and forces them to confront their mistakes with a little tough-love advice, while at the same time learning to accept her own fate. In that sense, Georgia functions as her own Magical Black Person (think Don Cheadle in “The Family Man” or Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance”).
It’s a concept that on its face is off-putting — but again, this is Latifah we’re talking about. She’s likable enough to make just about anything work.