A word to the wise: If you're ever told you have three weeks to live, you should seriously consider liquidating your life savings and making tracks to the world's most outrageously luxurious five-star resort. A word to the even wiser: Make sure you take Queen Latifah along with you.
"Last Holiday," Wayne Wang's energetic remake of the 1950 comedy starring Alec Guinness, gets new life breathed into it by a wonderful, slightly toned down performance from Queen Latifah. She's soft, bold and very funny, infusing this otherwise predictable movie with a contagious sort of charm.
As the shy, dutiful Georgia Byrd, Latifah is miles away from her customary "brassy broad" persona, a departure that allows real sadness and sweetness to play across her expressive face. Georgia, who is the unsung star salesperson at Kragen's, a down-on-its-luck New Orleans department store, works hard and doesn't do much else. She cooks mouthwatering meals (accompanied by Emeril's televised instructions), but feeds them to a young neighbor, limiting herself to frozen diet entrees. She is quietly but desperately infatuated with Sean (LL Cool J, whose melting smile is reason enough), even pasting his face over magazine wedding photos she has assembled in her "Book of Possibilities," (which might as well be called "Book of Things I Dream of Doing but Will Likely Never Actually Do.") And she is put upon by her moronic boss, who interrupts each of their conversations by answering his cellphone.
Then, one day, everything changes. A bump on the head sends her to the doctor, who orders a brain scan, which reveals several mysterious lesions. A few consultations later, she's given the grim news: She has a rare disease, and has three (maybe four) weeks left on the clock.
Pause for moment of panic, moment of denial, moment of anger (including one of the best-ever renditions of "Why me, God?" desperation) and then, a kind of acceptance, signaled by a trip to the bank for a massive withdrawal. It's time, she senses, to start living out that Book of Possibilities.
All sorts of delights follow, including Georgia's response to the indignities of coach class travel, her arrival at the Grandhotel Pupp (a real hotel set amid the Czech mountains), her various gastronomical adventures (Chef Didier, one of her heroes, is played with great comic verve by Gerard Depardieu), her BASE-jumping adventure. Other guests arrive, including the devious Matthew Kragen (of the department store, played by Timothy Hutton, who looks as if he has gone on the Christian Bale "Machinist" diet) and his haughty mistress (Alicia Witt, who has made a career of playing pinched, lifeless princesses opposite such earthy beauties as Latifah and Sandra Bullock). Also in attendance: a crooked senator (Giancarlo Esposito) and a creepy, Mrs. Danvers-style valet (Susan Kellermann) who raises her pointy eyebrow at each of Georgia's enthusiastic outbursts.
Wang (whose previous directorial efforts include "The Joy Luck Club" and "Because of Winn-Dixie") proves himself a deft hand at wringing every bit of pleasure out of a potentially humdrum story. The Czech backdrop is magical, and the effect of the snow and the glittering chandeliers and the plush decor is overwhelming: We feel as if we're taking part in Georgia's fairy tale.
Although this is not exactly a profound film, and the message ("Live every day as if it's your last") is hardly new; it's testament to this movie's joyous energy that it doesn't matter in the least. We may know exactly where we're going, but the journey is so much fun, all but the most peevish audience members will find it impossible to complain.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual references
A Paramount Pictures release. Director Wayne Wang. Producers Laurence Mark and Jack Rapke. Executive producers Robert Zemeckis, Steve Starkey, Richard Vane, Peter S. Seaman, Jeffrey Price. Screenplay by Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman and J.B. Priestly. Director of photography Geoffrey Simpson. Editor Deirdre Slevin. Music George Fenton. Production designer William Arnold. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
In general release.