Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) lives a very quiet, safe life as a sales clerk in the cookware department at Kragen's Department Store in New Orleans. She clips coupons, eats Lean Cuisine while cooking fabulous food for a neighbor's son, and secretly pines for Sean (LL Cool J), another sales clerk at the store. One day, Georgia bumps her head and learns that she has a rare, fatal tumor, giving her just three weeks to live. Shocked, she quits her job, withdraws her life savings and travels to the Grand Hotel Pupp in the Czech Republic. There, she finally starts living the life of her dreams.
"Last Holiday", directed by Wayne Wang ("The Joy Luck Club", "Maid in Manhattan"), is a star vehicle for Queen Latifah. Georgia Byrd is a role custom made for Latifah and it allows her to shine. The film is also surprisingly sweet, charming and enjoyable. A couple of minor missteps into "I Love Lucy" territory aside, this is a film to enjoy.
Queen Latifah is a personality and, let's face it, not an actress. In each of her previous films, her personality has been bigger than life. In some cases, this has worked for her. In others, it hasn't. But as Georgia, Latifah does a very good job of creating a living, breathing person. We believe every nuance and thought of her character, making her real, making us care.
She is a careful person, saving every penny, waiting for the opportunity to spend it. Working hard at a dead end job, she holds hope for the day when she will be able to use all of her skills and dreams to open a restaurant of her own. She practices for that day, cooking new dishes and taking a photo of the dish for her "Possibilities" book. A neighbor's son comes over to sample the food; Georgia seems to live on a steady diet of frozen low fat food in her ongoing battle to manage her figure.
Georgia is very good at her job and takes pride in the Cookware department at the large store, offering another venue for her to work on and practice for her dream, as she prepares food every Wednesday. Working in retail, her boss is the stereotypical jerk who reads self-help books by Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton), the owner of the store, and idolizes both the boss and his cell phone. But Georgia puts up with it because she has dreams.
Georgia also dreams about a relationship with Sean (LL Cool J), a fellow sales associate. She makes up excuses to be around him, buying things from his department, just for the attention. He is clearly shy and unable to express his feelings, making their relationship sweet and touching.
Then events happen, life happens, sh*t happens, and Georgia learns she has three weeks to live. All of those dreams need to become a reality and fast.
I just realized that I have been talking about Georgia; what happens to her throughout the film, what she does, how she handles things. A key testament to Latifah's performance is that I am referring to her character as a person.
"Holiday" is as good as it is because of Latifah's performance. She is sweet, charming and entirely believable throughout. As we witness Georgia's life in New Orleans, Latifah brings a quiet, demure, slightly defeated quality to the character. She puts up with a lot, but suppresses most of her feelings. What good would it do for her to yell or shout or get excited? But throughout, there is an air of hope as she longs for a relationship or talks quietly about her dreams. She even has a book, the "Book of Possibilities", in which she places brochures of places she wants to visit, articles about her idol, Emeril Lagasse, and pictures of the food she creates. This may sound a little hokey, and it is, but because Latifah does such a good job of creating Georgia, making her believable and real, this item becomes sweet, even a little endearing.
After Georgia learns her fate, she becomes a different person, trying to live as many of her dreams as possible in the time she has left. Withdrawing her life savings, she makes the trip she has always dreamed of, to the Grand Hotel. Thankfully, Georgia remains much the same person. She changes, it would be a boring film if she didn't, but she retains all of her human qualities; still sweet, charming and quiet. Thankfully, she doesn't begin to take on the more annoying habits of the stereotypical rich and famous people she meets at the hotel. The big change for Georgia is she becomes liberated. Her remaining time on Earth has made her realize what she is missing. She does what she wants, says what she wants and doesn't care what other people think about it.
Also good are LL Cool J and Gerard Depardieu. Boy, I never thought I would use both of those names in the same sentence. As Sean, LL Cool J is a nice compliment to Latifah's character; Sean is very similar to Georgia and it is sweet to watch them dance around each other, trying to get the courage up to start a relationship. Once Georgia gets to the Grand Hotel, she realizes two dreams; to stay at the hotel and to eat the food of Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu), the other chef she idolizes. Of course they become friends, but it is slightly more natural than you might imagine.
Less successful are the portrayals of the well-to-do she meets at the hotel. Upon her arrival, she immediately meets a Senator from New Orleans (Giancarlo Esposito), Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton), the owner of the department store where she used to work, and Kragen's Assistant/ Girlfriend (Alicia Witt). "Holiday" expects us to buy the contrivance that this woman travels thousands of miles and immediately runs into people who have previously affected her life. Because the film wants to be a feel good fairy tale, Georgia will naturally affect their lives, changing them for the better. Just as I was about to chuck a tomato at the screen, writing the film off, Latifah began to win me over again and I was willing to overlook this contrivance.
"Holiday" lays this on pretty thick. Not only does Georgia change the lives of the well-to-do she comes across, but the staff of the hotel come to know her, respect her and become empowered by her. These transformations work better than those of the rich and famous characters. In the universe of this film, rich equals vapid, superficial and ultimately bad. At least when Georgia is unconsciously changing the lives of the hotel workers, she is helping to empower the poor, the underclass, the "Good".
Director Wayne Wang has done some great work ("The Joy Luck Club") and made some not so great films ("Maid in Manhattan"). The director brings a level of depth and character to the film which I honestly wasn't expecting. Yes, Latifah is the life force of the film, but Wang provides the tapestry for her painting. And he probably guided her hand a lot as she applied paint to her character.
Despite the film's simplistic message, Wang infuses the story with characters and details, some of which work, some don't, making the film a lot more interesting than you might think.
There are a few points when "Holiday" falls flat, primarily when the story steers into sitcom territory, placing Georgia in one "I Love Lucy" situation after another. Imagine, the European Tour sequence of the original "I Love Lucy" show going to the Czech Republic and you might begin to get an idea of the "crazy situations" Georgia gets into. I think Lucille Ball might have done the same things. But in a sweet, moving film about a woman's journey, they are entirely out of place. At one point, Georgia snowboards across a group's lunch and ends up on the cover of a ski magazine. It just stretches the limits of credibility too far.
But overall, the film works. And works well, in large part due to a winning performance from Queen Latifah.