Paramount may be selling slapstick and impudent sass in trailers and TV spots, but “Last Holiday” is most successful when it is engaging, not uproarious. Glossy amusement is an updated remake of a well-regarded 1950 Brit comedy-drama starring Alec Guinness, improbably retrofitted as a star vehicle for Queen Latifah. Lead’s appealing performance and overall feel-good vibe could attract diverse demographics and generate strong word of mouth during a potentially leggy theatrical run.
Original pic (scripted by J.B. Priestley) cast Guinness as George Bird, a mousy salesman who doesn’t begin to enjoy life until he’s told he has just a few weeks to live. Diagnosed with a fatal illness, he impulsively opts to spend his life’s savings on a “last holiday” at an expensive resort where he’s mistaken for a wealthy wheeler-dealer. As he savors the unfamiliar pleasure of being treated with respect and attentiveness, Bird gradually discovers that he’s a much more interesting and adventurous fellow than he ever suspected.
Scripters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman recycle many of the same plot elements in their scenario for the Americanized remake. Georgia Bird (Latifah) is an introverted sales clerk in the cookware department of an upscale New Orleans department store. She dreams of being a successful chef, although she never even allows herself to sample to exquisite cuisine she prepares in her kitchen at home. (She’s a chronic weight watcher who’s stifled her appetite for fine food — and, presumably, for life itself.) And she pines for a handsome co-worker (another amiable romantic turn by LL Cool J), who she’s too shy to actually romance.
Much like her semi-namesake in the original pic, Georgia radically re-prioritizes when she gets seriously bad news from her doctor. (Julia Lashae is fleetingly funny as a nastily caricatured HMO administrator.) Determined to enjoy every minute of her final weeks, she books a flight to Karlovy Vary, where she hopes to meet the legendary chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu) and pamper herself at a luxurious ski resort.
Latifah deftly mutes her trademark verve in the opening reel of “Last Holiday,” so that she’s surprisingly credible as a woman too uptight and inhibited to even raise her voice in a church choir. (An elaborate production number during a Sunday service indicates that, down the road, pic might easily be transformed into a stage musical.)
As Georgia gradually blossoms in her new environment, director Wayne Wang encourages his leading lady to reveal more familiar aspects of her on-screen persona. Latifah effortlessly dominates every scene as Georgia hobnobs with vacationing congressmen (Giancarlo Esposito, Michael Nouri), admires the kitchen magic of a bemused chef Didier, and advises the under-appreciated mistress (Alicia Witt) of a snide retail tycoon (Timothy Hutton), who just happens to own the department store where Georgia worked in New Orleans.
Despite the undeniable appeal of pic’s underlying “Live for today!” theme, “Last Holiday” takes a bit too long to cover familiar territory en route to a predictable destination. (It’s not at all surprising that the remake eschews Priestley’s audacious ending.) Some of the more elaborate funny business is, at best, uneven. A frenetic ski-and-snowboard race down a steep hillside goes on too long and relies too heavily on unconvincing stunt doubles.
Even so, Latifah ensures that “Last Holiday” is often very charming and never less than pleasant. She and Depardieu establish a mildly flirtatious give-and-take that is quite delightful — so much so, in fact, that you may wish their characters had gotten even closer. Among the other supporting players, Witt, Ranjit Chowdhry (as Georgia’s doctor) and Susan Kellermann (as a snooty hotel employee) are stand-outs.
Sequences filmed on location in New Orleans prior to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina may bring a sense of melancholy nostalgia to some viewers. In the same vein, a scene in which Georgia chides a Louisiana senator for not paying enough attention to “community re-development” may have an impact that the filmmakers could not have predicted.
Tech credits are mostly impressive, though lensing occasionally is unaccountably drab.