Last Holiday

Posted: Jan 13, 2006 12:01 AM

A person just cannot trust film trailers anymore.

These days, movies that look like good-spirited holiday comedies turn out to be propagandistic clunkers, and movies that look like grade B schlock turn out to be charming celebrations of life.

Last Holiday, the Queen Latifah vehicle in which a shy, cautious woman discovers she only has three weeks to live thankfully falls into the second category. It is by no means a great movie, but it is a good one—a much better film than its ads would suggest.

Georgia Bird (Latifah) has played by the rules all her life, even those rules no one follows anymore. She scrimps, she saves, she eats right, she doesn’t flirt with strange men, and she dreams of the day when her life will be more fulfilling.

As an amateur chef and professional cookware salesperson, Georgia knows how to create flavor. She’s just too afraid to taste it. That is until she’s given a terminal bill of health and decides to blow her life savings on a final send-off at a stunning luxury resort in the Czech-Republic known for its scenery, skiing, and gourmet delights.

Once she arrives, Georgia vows to savor every minute she has left and befriends the hotel’s celebrity chef Didier (a lovely Gerard Depardieu) who’s delighted by her passion for his food. Georgia abandons herself so completely to making her last days extravagant, her fellow Americans, including a retail tycoon and the senator vacationing on his dime, mistake her for a woman of means and navigate to find out how they can profit from her. But they soon discover they have much more to gain from Madame Bird than money or power.

Obviously, with such simple themes, Last Holiday is going to suffer from charges of being naïve and hokey. And though it does occasionally come across a bit old-fashioned, more often it is surprising in the authentic and original ways it deals with death. A scene in which the typically quiet choirgirl Georgia finally lets her booming, queenly voice out, singing, “Why, God, Why?” and the response of her fellow parishioners inspires both tears and laughs of recognition.

In fact, the biggest missteps the film makes are its few concessions to modern demand for slapstick and sassy one-liners. Based on her performance, it’s almost as if Latifa recognizes that these “I’ll be back” moments don’t fit the unfolding nature of her film. She throws them away quickly and gets back to the business of creating a sympathetic, layered character relishing every new and last taste she can experience.

Food has always been a metaphor for life and director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Maid in Manhattan) takes his time creating a sumptuous cinematic buffet. He shows the dishes, from preparation to presentation, with such loving detail we wish we could reach a fork through the screen and taste it (I, for one, had to go straight to dinner after nearly two hours of watching Depardieu work his magic in the kitchen).

But however sumptuous the spread, the best thing about Last Holiday is its open, embracing spirit in which no stock villain is entirely what he seems, and everyone is given the opportunity to rise above their nature.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Last Holiday is a remake of a 1950 classic that causes it to gives off such a warm, comforting glow. Whereas most films today seek to reveal every aspect of the ugliness of life, this one, like the original, reminds us what’s so beautiful about it.