She’s our queen. This young lady is so multitalented. She’s still the girl next door. She still comes home to Newark.
— Mayor Sharpe James, New York Times, 12 January 2006
“Keep Christ in Christmas,” reads a poster at the church where Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) sings in the choir. The camera’s brief pan of the group reveals they are earnest and hardworking, preparing their performance for a visit from Senator Dillings (Giancarlo Esposito), on whom they hope to impress the importance of their churchy work.
Bighearted and big-dreaming, Last Holiday‘s Georgia has personal aspirations as well, which she keeps to herself. A cookware salesperson at a New Orleans department store, she watches Emeril, and cooks delicious experiments for customers and the doting kid next door. Though she’s instructed to stop “cooking for the moochers,” Georgia takes pride and joy in pleasing folks. And so she resists management’s efforts to “change the culture around here,” instead finding ways to give of herself and flash that fabulous Latifah smile.
In particular, Georgia wants to get the attention of her most divine coworker Sean (LL Cool J), who appreciates that when she cooks, “it smells like my mama’s house.” Though she’s unable to tell Sean, at home she keeps a Book of Possibilities, in which she’s assembled her dream wedding and honeymoon, with her face pasted in alongside Sean’s. When the neighbor kid discovers the book, she’s embarrassed, but only smiles sheepishly and turns to her Lean Cuisine meal for comfort (right: she doesn’t eat her own cooking, another sign of her generous but self-repressed nature).
It takes a dreadful misunderstanding to drive Georgia to act on her desires. Following a clunk on the head at work, she’s informed by a doctor Ranjit Chowdhry) that she’s got Lampington’s Disease and only weeks to live (the machines he’s working with are so obviously decrepit that you’re not inclined to put much stock in his diagnosis). After a little fretting, she quits the job and cleans out her savings for a tip to the resort village, Karlovy Vary, where she stays at the Hotel Pupp and impresses the magnificent and generally irascible Chef Didier (Gérard Depardieu) with her grand appetite.
At this point Wayne Wang’s remake of the 1950 Alec Guinness film gives in to the romantic comedic conventions the director also indulged in Maid in Manhattan. The fact that the new movie is not so tedious as the previous one is a credit to Latifah, whose luminous energy makes the flat-footed plot proceedings almost bearable. Almost: the clichés are dull by any standard, as Georgia is surrounded at the hotel by unhappy rich people and their servants, and called on to instruct them in what’s really important in life. (It’s also worth noting that, during her stay at the hotel, Sean is mostly off-screen back in New Orleans, and so the film quite misses the point of casting LL Cool J as romantic object: he’s only visible some 20 minutes total.)
Georgia’s students at the hotel are utterly familiar: women need to assert themselves and men need to become sensitive to the needs of their partners, employees, and, in the case of Congressman Stewart (Michael Nouri) and the conveniently appearing Senator Dillings, constituents. The lovely Ms. Burns (Alicia Witt) works for egregiously self-absorbed executive Kragen (Timothy Hutton); their affair has quite run its course, but she goes along in order to preserve her career (you can imagine Georgia’s thinking on this situation, and she lets Ms. Burns know). That Kragen thinks Georgia is a business competitor makes him especially unable to see her charms, until he does, and then he too learns a lesson.
Likewise, imperious hotel valet Ms. Gunther (Susan Kellermann) first perceives Georgia as the enemy, as Gunther is too snooty and regimented to appreciate her guest’s vivacity and kindness, not to mention paid by Kragen to snoop in Georgia’s luggage. Gunther’s eventual turnaround is premised on Georgia’s irresistibility. Full of insight and advice, she also teaches by doing, enthusiastically taking up snowboarding, gambling, base jumping, and cooking with Chef Didier (in a by-the-numbers montage, for which they agree, “It’s not how you start, but how you finish!”).
Compassionate and centered, Georgia has something of the Magical Negro about her, as she sheds light on all the troubles of her wealthy white fellows. That said, she does have her own happy ending, and she doesn’t have to sacrifice herself for anyone, even if she thinks that’s where she’s headed for the bulk of the movie. At the same time, the film offers a rudimentary class critique in working-class Georgia’s boisterous reeducation of the hoity-toity types. But none of these bits — and the film reads like a series of bits — quite grants Latifah a performance stretch. She’s Latifah pretending to be plain, then she’s Latifah shining her considerable light on everyone else.
While the assembly of actors is surely appealing (aside from the unstoppable Latifah, Hutton is actually very good as the not-so-slow-burning Kragen; you might imagine he’s got a Matt Dillonish recuperation in his future), this comfort-foodish film can’t get out from under its burden of clichés. As she gains increased clout (maybe her new Hollywood star counts for something), perhaps the Queen can angle for work that’s challenging and rewarding for all her subjects.