Last Holiday

It’s almost like you can’ bear the cold, and then you have to keep reshooting this stuff to get it right.
— Wayne Wang

“So much of the movie,” says director Wayne Wang of his Last Holiday, “is about giving up your fears and trying to live your life.” That’s probably true, but as it makes this point in conventional ways, the “giving up” appears fundamentally limited. Bighearted and big-dreaming, Georgia (Queen Latifah) wants to be a chef. A cookware salesperson at a New Orleans department store, she watches Emeril on tv 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 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 addition to cooking, 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 (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 trip 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.

Here, this remake of a 1950 Alec Guinness film, The Last Holiday, 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.)

The DVD includes precious little supporting material, including three frankly cheesy featuretttes, all pretty much reiterating the points that Latifah is excellent and the plot is sentimental but that’s okay. According to “Last Holiday: 23 Years in the Making,” as the title implies, the movie took a ridiculously long time to be made: why the writers — Peter Seaman and Jeffrey Price — kept on the script for so many years remains a mystery unfigured here. As Price puts it, he and Seaman worked on it for so long that “after a while, it practically wrote itself.” (That might explain something about the plot’s general staleness.)

In “Last Holiday: Packing Light,” LL Cool J describes the film as “a really sweet, innocent romantic comedy,” in other words, a generic project with a “cute romantic charm.” True, but it’s heard to see how this matters. “Last Holiday: Last Look” features discussions — by Wang, production designer William Arnold, costume designer Daniel Orlandi, and director of photography Geoffrey Simpson — concerning the greenness of New Orleans and the snowy white resort.

Georgia’s students at this 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 (Giancarlo Esposito), constituents. The lovely Ms. Burns (Alicia Witt) works for egregiously self-absorbed executive Kragen (Timothy Hutton, who describes his character as having a “human side,” whatever that means). 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, where they agree, “It’s not how you start, but how you finish!”). Latifah notes, with reference to snowboarding, that while she “loves having the opportunity to things that are exciting and go to places I’ve never been, and experience things I’ve never experienced before. So it hasn’t been a big stretch for me to get into those shoes for Georgia. The feeling is natural when you look out over these 30-mile views of nothing but majestic mountains, these snow-covered mountains, it’s just gorgeous.”

Because she’s Latifah, Georgia is not so banal as she would be on paper. Compassionate and centered, Georgia shines a magical negroish 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.

RATING 4 / 10