Based on J.B. Priestley's 1950 film starring Alec Guinness, Last Holiday features Queen Latifah as Georgia Byrd, a meek, downtrodden New Orleans department store salesgirl, who dreams of owning her own restaurant and marrying the man of her dreams, co-worker Sean (LL Cool J). But when she is diagnosed with inoperable brain disease and given three weeks to live, she decides to stop dreaming and start living. She blows her savings on a vacation at the luxurious Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic. There, Georgia encounters the weaselly owner of her store (Timothy Hutton), a sleazy New Orleans senator (Giancarlo Esposito) and, most importantly, her idolized Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu), who bonds with her over a shared love of haute cuisine.
Actually, the inspiration for this film stretches even farther back than 1950, to the 1937 Ben Hecht-penned screwball comedy Nothing Sacred, which had Carole Lombard as the dying girl. Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman have come up with some fresh laughs in their screenplay, but Wayne Wang's direction is only serviceable-his comic timing is sometimes erratic-and the cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson is strangely muddy, lacking the lovely clarity of his work in Under the Tuscan Sun and Little Women. However, thanks to the film's star, none of this much matters.
Queen Latifah remains here an utterly imperturbable, warm and human presence. By cannily producing her own projects, she has given herself the steady movie career which has eluded other black actresses from Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson to Halle Berry, Angela Bassett and Alfre Woodard. Her films-Bringing Down the House, Beauty Shop and now this-may not be history-making in terms of art, but they have all delivered solid entertainment, sending audiences out smiling.
Latifah possesses that uncanny audience-identification x-factor, never more so than when she destroys her annoying boss' incessantly ringing cell-phone and his even more irritating self-help business CD. You're completely in her corner every step of the way of this cornball comic contraption, sharing her delight in the newfound luxury of her European surroundings. "Doesn't that ceiling make you wanna cry?" she asks an oblivious desk clerk about the glorious Baroque expanse overhead.
LL Cool J isn't given enough to do, but makes an appropriately stalwart love interest, especially when he handily (and quite impressively) throws Georgia over his shoulder and carries her off when she passes out. Depardieu makes you share in his enjoyment as a master chef, barking orders in his kitchen as he whips up some of the most unbearably luscious-looking food ever seen on the screen. (The Queen orders one of each.) Ranjit Chowdhry comically redeems the offensiveness of his broadly drawn doctor character. Talented Jane Adams is wasted, but brings some perky wit to the early scenes. Hutton and Esposito villainously more or less mark time, in roles which unfortunately will do nothing to enhance their careers.