Combustible Celluloid
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With: Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Timothy Hutton, Giancarlo Esposito, Alicia Witt, Gerard Depardieu, Jane Adams
Written by: Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman, based on a 1950 screenplay by J.B. Priestley
Directed by: Wayne Wang
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual reference
Running Time: 112
Date: 01/13/2006

Last Holiday (2006)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Roaming 'Holiday'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

For those who like to track and chart film directors, Wayne Wang has become one of the game's slipperiest figures, even more so than the unpredictable Steven Soderbergh. In the past decade, Wang has turned out brainy, yet physically and sexually potent works like Smoke (1995) and The Center of the World (2001), working with funky, outsider writers like Paul Auster and Miranda July.

He has also teamed up with the master screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (Belle de Jour, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) on the strikingly personal Chinese Box (1998), which is all the more interesting because of its ultimate failure to find meaning in the 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to Communist China.

Yet, also during this period, his name has turned up attached to the lightweight weepie Anywhere But Here (1999), as well as last year's children's film Because of Winn-Dixie. These particular jobs may have come as a result of his success on The Joy Luck Club (1993), but this career strain has also led to women's romantic comedies like Maid in Manhattan (2002), which to date is Wang's most financially successful and least acclaimed film.

It's obvious, then, how the new Last Holiday came about. If one diva, Jennifer Lopez, can command a hit from Wang, perhaps another, Queen Latifah, can do the same.

Though neither Lopez nor Latifah would be caught dead in public wearing less than $10,000 worth of wardrobe while flashing million-dollar smiles, they both play shy, drab, withdrawn characters in Wang's comedies. Eventually they must learn to break out of their shells because of a man, or fate, or God, or all three.

In Latifah's case, she plays Georgia Byrd, a New Orleans department store clerk who likes to cook but only eats Lean Cuisine, and who is in love with a fellow clerk, hunky Sean Matthews (LL Cool J), but is too shy to connect with him.

After a bump on the head and a cursory CAT scan, it's revealed that she has a fatal brain disease, leaving her with about three weeks to live. She cashes out her entire savings account, liquidates all her bonds, and jets to Prague. There, in a ritzy hotel, she hopes to meet and taste the wares of a famous chef, Didier (Gerard Depardieu).

Finally out of her shell -- and with a new wardrobe and makeover -- Georgia begins to charm those around her, including the vacationing Louisiana senator (Giancarlo Esposito), an evil retail magnate (Timothy Hutton) and his mistress (Alicia Witt). Everyone begins to believe that she's a "somebody," and she learns to live for the first time.

Last Holiday is a remake of a 1950 Alec Guinness film (he played "George Bird"), and though Latifah has a long way to go before she reaches that kind of genius, she has a definite robust charm that glows from the screen. Even in her pre-makeover scenes, it's not too hard to believe LL Cool J going gooey at the sight of her.

Wang clearly clues into her as well. During the movie's quiet moments, he luxuriates in her, watching her as she enjoys her newfound opulence and glamour. But, sadly, he needed something to put in the trailer to sell to the masses, so we have the usual collection of slapstick and pratfalls as Georgia learns to snowboard and base-jump.

Hutton, likewise, dumbs down the film with his silly portrayal of the shallow and twitchy villain, who snoops into Georgia's past and discovers who she really is. And Jane Adams (Happiness) is wasted in a "best friend" role whose job is to continually harass Georgia about her love life.

Indeed, the film's larger arc and plot twists leave quite a bit to be desired. But Wang's overall delicate touch makes Last Holiday tolerable. His lovely Cinemascope frame emphasizes the fantasy element of the glamorous resort, and he has an eye for food, making Latifah and Depardieu's scenes together a delight.

In fact, with a little re-writing and a little editing, Last Holiday could have been a wonderful "foodie" movie, one that celebrates the virtues of butter and pork fat. But taste is one thing and a balanced diet is something else entirely, and this film simply bites off more than it can chew.

DVD Details: Paramount's DVD comes with deleted scenes, three featurettes, two recipes and a trailer. The widescreen versions and pan-and-scan versions are available separately.

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