In 1950, Alec Guinness. In 2006, Queen Latifah. In 1950, J.B. Priestley. In 2006, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman (“How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Wild, Wild West”). Does this seem a fair trade? Whether it does or not, that’s the sum and substance of “Last Holiday,” which retools a modest but charming British comedy-drama more than half a century old, about a meek salesman who splurges on a big vacation after being informed he’s terminally ill and is liberated when he’s mistaken for somebody important, into a much more elaborate and glossy vehicle for the brassy singer-turned-movie star. The good news is that though this splashy movie can’t hold a candle to its smart, subtle predecessor, the transformation isn’t as horrible as you might expect. The bad is that it’s not especially good, either.
In this refashioning, rather lackadaisically directed by Wayne Wang, the protagonist is Georgia Byrd, a shy saleswoman in the cookware department of a New Orleans store owned by ruthless magnate Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton), where she suffers repeated indignities at the hands of a sneering boss. She’s smitten with co-worker Sean Matthews (LL Cool J), but too retiring ever to let him know; instead she spends most of her free time at home, making fabulous meals that she never eats herself (since she’s concerned about her weight) but feeds to a likable neighbor kid. One day at work she bumps her head, and the frazzled company doctor (Ranjit Chowdhry) insists she have a CAT scan on a used machine he’s just acquired for his clinic. The scan shows that she’s got one of those rare diseases that will kill her in a few weeks, despite the fact that she feels just dandy. Without bothering to get a second opinion, and turned down by her HMO for an expensive operation, she quits her job, cashes in her savings, and flies off to the exclusive Grandhotel Pupp in the Czech mountains, where one of her heroes–Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu) presides over the kitchen. She’s transformed by the trip, becoming confident and beautiful, and her new glow entrances almost everyone she meets at the hotel–Didier; her own Senator, Clarence Dillings (Giancarlo Esposito), who happens to be there with Kragen; his associate Congressman Stewart (Michael Nouri); grim floor manager Ms. Gunther (Susan Kellermann); and Kragen’s young mistress (Alicia Witt). Only Kragen remains immune–until the inevitable “revelation” scene near the close. And by then, of course, not only is love in the air for Georgia, but the medical principle about always checking an initial diagnosis–especially when it’s based on a used CAT scanner operated by a comic-relief doctor–comes into play. And in the end our heroine finds the same kind of fulfillment that the character Queen Latifah played in “Beauty Shop” did.
Indeed, this movie represents only a modest advance from that one for Latifah, who’s here required briefly to act withdrawn and shy before blooming into the ebullient, plain-speaking broad that’s her normal persona. Otherwise it’s pretty much the standard business of watching her free other people from their uptight existences by the sheer force of her magnetic personality. It’s a formula that’s getting old, even if you find her irresistible; but at least “Last Holiday” isn’t as painful an example of it as “Bringing Down the House” or “Taxi” were. It does share with the latter picture, however, some unfortunate scenes involving body doubles for the star–in this case slapstick episodes in which Georgia supposedly snowboards down a steep slope and parachutes off a huge dam just for kicks. Let’s just say that the substitutions aren’t exactly convincing.
The rest of the cast hasn’t much to do except to look upon Latifah in either adoration or (in Hutton’s case) exasperation. That’s a bit embarrassing for Cool J and Esposito, but especially so for Depardieu, who’s stuck with some of the script’s most absurd lines. Hutton flails about desperately trying to convince as a combination Snidely Whiplash and Donald Trump As for Kellermann, one supposes she was hired for the part of the fascist-leaning manager because Cloris Leachman was unavailable.
The Czech locations are attractive, with the actual Pupp hotel especially impressive; and though there’s a bit of discomfort in seeing pre-Katrina New Orleans at this date (especially with the repeated references to “community development”), those exteriors were nicely chosen as well. On the other hand, the Louisiana interiors–the store, Georgia’s house–have a cramped feel. Geoffrey Simpson’s widescreen lensing is mostly solid, though he–like much of the cast–is occasionally undermined by Wang’s less-than-slick handling of many scenes and Deirdre Slevin’s not-always-tidy editing. George Fenton’s score doesn’t miss a cute beat–which makes for some moments more irritating than they needed to be.
Most remakes of good movies prove inferior to the originals, and this one is no exception. Though the movie isn’t the “Holiday” from hell, it’s not one you should be anxious to go off on, either.