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‘Last Holiday’ highlights Queen Latifah’s talents

Howie Nave
Queen Latifah and LL Cool J star in "Last Holiday."
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Sometimes it is best to release a holiday movie after the holidays. Odd, you say? Actually, when you consider the glut of films released in the last two weeks of last year, it makes perfect sense.

Usually the month of January is the “leftover” month, when the studios unload their tax write-offs and start touting their Oscar hopefuls, re-releasing those from last year that may be in contention for a statue come March 5. However, every now and then, a movie slips in under the radar that deserves to be noticed, and “Last Holiday” is such a movie.

Queen Latifah has found a vehicle that not only shows off her comedic timing, but also displays a range of depth that had eluded her in past projects. She scores big points for her ability to make you laugh one moment and then feel her agony as she realizes that life has dealt her a wrong hand.

And, yes, “Last Holiday” is a remake. The original British 1950 version (directed by Henry Cass with a screenplay by J.B. Priestly) starred Alec Guinness as a salesman of agricultural machinery who finds out that he hasn’t long to live and finds out that he was much more than what his job made him out to be.

In the role made famous by Alec Guinness is Latifah, who transforms it into a much more diversified character. Following parallel scripts, Latifah plays Georgia Byrd (Guinness’ character was George Bird), an introverted sales clerk in the cookware department of an upscale New Orleans department store. She dreams of being a successful chef, but several circumstances keep her from going after those dreams, including her appetite for gourmet food while being a chronic weight watcher. Along with putting her dreams on hold, she has a problem with being shy. Then there’s her longing to connect in a romantic way with co-worker Sean Matthews (LL Cool J).

All of this changes radically upon getting bad news from her doctor (Ranjit Chowdhry) that she doesn’t have long to live. Amazing what a person will do to change their surroundings when their life expectancy is up sooner than anticipated. Suffice it to say that once again the red bureaucratic tape that is our nation’s HMO system gets a kick in the teeth here, via laughter at their expense, of course.

As the title of the movie implies, Georgia now sets out to re-prioritize what is important to her, and that includes cashing in her life savings and doing what she has always wanted to do: live. A very broad stroke, yes, but one that includes a trip to Karlovy Vary, where she hopes to meet legendary chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu) and pamper herself at a luxurious ski resort, sparing no expense. It may seem tough to see the comedy right now, but trust me, the laugh stops are way out once people think that Georgia is some eccentric millionaire with money to burn and not a person who has a limited time left in this world.

Director Wayne Wang makes great use of Latifah’s talents, and at times it feels as if she is allowed to improvise freely with some of her scenes. She effortlessly dominates every scene she is in and shines even more with the help of an excellent ensemble cast. Timothy Hutton is charming as the retail tycoon who just happens to own the department store where Georgia worked in New Orleans. His mistress is played by the always-reliable Alicia Witt. And Susan Kellermann as a snooty hotel employee was so funny, and the chemistry between her and Latifah was simply hysterical.

It becomes very obvious that “Last Holiday” is telling us that no one truly knows when their time is up and that we shouldn’t put off those things tomorrow but act on them in the now. And this movie could have gone the opposite direction, being sappy and all-too-familiar while being preachy that life is short and every other cliché under the sun (like that line I just wrote).

Latifah makes this a memorable movie, and next Christmas it will no doubt make my “Top 10 Best Christmas Movies.” Bring the hankies.

I felt a little melancholy watching those beautiful shots in New Orleans, because this was shot before Hurricane Katrina ravaged everything.

– Howie Nave is host/manager of The Improv comedy club inside Harveys and reviews films for seven radio stations throughout northern California and Nevada, including the Sirius Radio Network every Sunday evening. He hosts “Howie’s Morning Rush” on Tahoe’s KRLT radio and you can see his film reviews every Friday morning on KOLO ABC TV Channel 8 and weekends on KMTN television here in South Lake Tahoe.

Keepin’ it Reel


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