'Last Holiday': Nothing to Lose, a Lot to Like

After a grim diagnosis, Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) learns how to live -- and express her feelings to her crush, played by LL Cool J.
After a grim diagnosis, Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) learns how to live -- and express her feelings to her crush, played by LL Cool J. (By Stephen Vaughan -- Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006

Hmmm, now let me see if I have this right . . . Queen Latifah is in the Alec Guinness role?

That's exactly what happens in "Last Holiday," and it's surprising how well it works. After all, Latifah isn't dragooned into playing either Guinness's great Obi-Wan Kenobi or his even greater Colonel Nicholson, the mad British officer who built the bridge on the River Kwai.

Latifah plays Georgia Byrd, as Guinness -- way back in 1950 and working from a screenplay from the once-famous British writer J.B. Priestley -- played George Bird. In both cases, of course, the situation is the same: A somewhat mousy, unprepossessing but definitely unfulfilled person is diagnosed with a soon-to-be-fatal illness. Wanting a last fling, the doomed one cashes in the life savings and takes off for an exotic spot. But as he or she mingles with the rich habitues of such a milieu, imminent death liberates him or her from a sense of social inferiority. Suddenly George and Georgia blossom as never before with charisma, wisdom, savoir-faire, courage and grace. They may be dying, but they're definitely on the road to self-improvement.

Indeed, underneath it all, in both its iterations "Last Holiday" decodes as a variant on J.M. Barrie's brilliant play "The Admirable Crichton," which argued that in a state of nature (either a desert island or an inhibition-destroying fatal diagnosis), a natural aristocracy of talent and sense would come to assert itself over distinctions that were simply class-based.

Thus, while "Last Holiday" is hardly a godsend or even a saintsend or a good-guysend, it's a good-hearted and kind-spirited if mild pleasure. It begins with Latifah, proving once again the weird parallels between rap stardom and movie stardom. Both formats seem to be about a magical something called presence, and Latifah, even in a dialed-down, quiet role like this one, has it (as did, for the record, the great Guinness, who could do more with less than nearly any actor alive; I've just re-seen his fabulous "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" from 1979, in which he quietly dominates a whole menagerie of showoffs).

As this version of the Priestley screenplay has it, Georgia Byrd works in cookware in Kragen's department store in New Orleans (the background of pre-flooded New Orleans, bright and vibrant, gives the movie an incidental melancholy). She's the best salesclerk, the most beloved staffer, the most organized, professional and humane, yet of course the least recognized. Her boss (a prig) is abusive; her romantic ardor for a young man (LL Cool J) goes largely unnoticed.

The death sentence is courtesy of a CAT scan that suggests she has three weeks left. She quits, cashes in and heads to -- well, I liked this touch even if I can't for the life of me figure out how filmmaker Wayne Wang picked it -- the Czech Republic, actually to the ski-and-spa town of Karlovy Vary, where she puts in at a five-star joint that looks like it was built in Anno Domini XIII by one of Octavian's flouncier engineers. The old resort, with its liveried staff, its sense of Old World elegance and decorum, its insistence on providing nine forks with every dish, certainly feels fresh as a movie background, when of course most of us were expecting banalities like Paris or London or St.-Tropez.

Amid the splendors, Georgia's fundamental decency and good sense soon wins converts among the rich and famous, including senators and congressmen and, most pungently, the very same Matthew Kragen, her erstwhile employer and all-around snoot and twerp. This unpleasant fellow is played aggressively by Timothy Hutton, who is usually cast in nice-guy roles. He seems to relish the bad-guy thing but . . . Memo to Tim: Drink a milkshake, bud. The guy couldn't weigh 112 pounds. Meg Ryan could clean his clock and the oversize Latifah could gobble him like an hors d'oeuvre in a nanosecond.

Of surprises there are few, of reversals there are none, of expectations they are low. The movie is content to be a kind of middling expression of human decency: It's never either terribly funny or terribly dramatic, but Latifah's quiet solidity and common sense root it in ways that larger, louder pictures never achieve.

Last Holiday (112 minutes at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mild sexual references.

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