Queen Latifah, who once showed promise as a blustery, easily bribed, singin and dancin warden in Chicago stars in a movie you’ve basically seen before. Last Holiday is the story of a woman who finds out she’s going to die, and so does the thing that dying people in movies tend to do: have a lot of fun. Personally, in that situation I think I might be tempted to forgo the fun and taking a cue from Joe, throw myself into a volcano. At the very least I'd probably ask my doctor for a second opinion, especially if he describes my incurable disease as “sneaky”.
But “sneaky” is exactly what Georgia Byrd’s (Queen Latifah) particular ailment is, I believe her doctor even goes so far as to call it “diabolical”. Last Holiday doesn’t waste much time mucking about with the particulars of Georgia’s disease, just know that she has it and she’s going to die unless she can find the cash to pay for an operation. Her HMO won’t pay for surgery, so she needs $340,000 up front to keep her brain firing. She doesn’t have it, so Georgia gives up (rather easily) and decides to spend her last two or three weeks on Earth doing some of the things she’d always wanted to do, but put off for later.
Thus begins the character’s instant transformation from boring spinster to life of the party. Georgia cashes in her savings and lives the high life, spending the money she could have spent fixing her tumor-ridden brain on fancy hotels and champagne. The other guests at her elite Czech resort are all major power-brokers, and when they see her spending money like water, they assume she’s one too. That’s when the movie starts to lose its way, and the story’s focus is lost as it tries to tackle politics, health care issues, romance, corporate greed, and the value of life all at once. The movie would have been better served by focusing on the smaller story of Georgia’s transformation into the person she’d always dreamed of being, rather than taking preachy side trips into topics like political corruption. It’s of place, and every time Georgia makes a speech about how politicians should be helping people instead of rolling around in piles of money, my interest powered down.
The screenplay may be kind of an unoriginal mess, but some really nice, understated performances from people like Latifah and L.L. Cool J as well as impressive direction by Wayne Wang save it from utter failure. L.L. plays Latifah’s poorly written love interest; a guy who isn’t even on a first name basis with her, but after five minutes decides he’d like to fly halfway around the world to get with her. To me that makes him a stalker, but in the movies it’s considered romance. Still, L.L. Cool J. plays the character as gentle and well-meaning, making him likeable in spite of the shoddy writing propelling him onto the screen. Queen Latifah accomplishes much the same with Georgia; even in dowdy sweaters she has a way of lighting up a room.
Wang, whose resume includes Maid in Manhattan (another beautifully filmed movie with a terrible plot), shoots his film perfectly, with warm colors and beautiful panoramas. His camera is always in the right place at the right time, and he hits all the right emotional beats in the film, doing the best he can to salvage whatever good moments there are in Last Holiday’s story and while minimizing the crap. I could have done without the overbearing, tell-me-how-to-feel score running behind most of Last Holiday’s heavier emotional beats, but with writing this weak maybe the audience actually needs something to tell them how to feel. It’s certainly not in the script.
The ending is of course utterly predictable, they aren’t going out on a ledge. With this sort of film, you have to expect predictable. Last Holiday has problems, but the movie as a whole acquits itself with grace and charm that if not enough to overcome its flaws, is enough to make it mildly palatable.