Given the comic and poignant possibilities inherent in a doomed character’s wish-fulfilling last hurrah, is it lack of imagination or sheer perversity on Wayne Wang’s part that all roads in Last Holiday lead to montages of Queen Latifah trying on splashy outfits to Gwen Stefani’s “Rich Girl”? I haven’t seen the British 1950 movie which served as basis for the screenplay by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, though the effacing slyness that was original star Alec Guinness’s specialty sounds ideally tailored for the role of a mollusk finally freed from his shell by the notion of impending death. By contrast, the casting of perpetually robust Latifah as a shy wallflower comes off as not so much an against-type gamble as a miscalculation of a performer’s most vital gifts, with the actress subsequently appearing trapped in a body cast.
Latifah’s Georgia Byrd, the meekest voice in her local gospel chorus, is a New Orleans department store clerk too timid to follow her dreams, instead keeping them as snippets in a scrapbook helpfully labeled “Possibilities.” A slapstick bump to the head and she’s off to the clinic, where a cranial scan reveals multiple tumors and three weeks left to live—her responsibilities lifted, the heroine smashes her asshole boss’s cellphone with her pump and empties her bank account for one final splurge in Europe. Once her hair is down, Latifah becomes the resplendent focus of attention in an ultra-expensive Czech hotel, her newfound sassiness working like magic on a snobbish circle that includes smug CEO Timothy Hutton (who learns that life is not just about making money), irresponsible senator Giancarlo Esposito (who learns to “help his own people”), and imperious celebrity chef Gérard Depardieu (who talks funny because he’s, you know, foreign).
If not as offensive as the shrugging racial subjugation of his Maid in Manhattan, Wang’s tepid feel-gooder follows a virtually identical arc of ethnic mistaken-identity comedy, with a black woman plopped amid posh settings for the giggles of white audiences (see Latifah gasp at the wealth all around her; see Latifah shriek and tumble while snowboarding down a mountain). Variously described as “a true existentialist” and “a saint,” the plain-spoken character is meant as a counterpoint to the arrogant swells peopling the hotel, but it’s clear that the movie is far more interested in her as an exotic sass-machine comically lost in luxury than a woman coming to terms with her quandaries. Ultimately, one might gladly exercise the film’s carpe-diem moral by concluding that life is too short for movies like Last Holiday.