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By Rory L. Aronsky | June 14, 2006

“Last Holiday” jumps through all the expected hoops of its conventional screenplay: Misunderstanding built upon misunderstanding, a potential lover obviously and symbolically showing his love by a scene created only for that, and a shy, inward character breaking out because of something that’s expected to happen to them or has already happened.

The shy inwardness comes from Queen Latifah as Georgia Byrd, working for years in the cookware section at the plain, colorless Kragen’s department store in New Orleans, and quietly taking the brunt of verbal abuses from her egotistical, above-everyone boss (Matt Ross). Naturally, with a job like that and a demeanor like hers, something’s got to give and it does when she’s knocked out after bumping her head on the bottom of a cabinet door after nervously talking to Sean (LL Cool J), who she wants, but has never said so. The diagnosis by the sadly cheap-looking Kragen’s employee clinic’s CAT scan machine? She has Lampington’s disease and three weeks to live. So it’s off to a very upscale hotel in Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic where she can meet Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu), whom she’s always admired, and she also clearly has a knack for food artistry. That’s what it comes to with all the dishes seen, courtesy of the Food Network which was brought on for technical assistance.

Since “Living Out Loud”, Latifah has always had an unforgettable dynamism that made her Oscar nomination as Mama Morton in “Chicago” one of the rare well-deserved nominations. It’s obvious where “Last Holiday” goes and at times it takes too long to get there, but watching Latifah work her style and spirit when she gets to the Grandhotel Pupp is pure enjoyment. She charms everyone there, including wealthy Matthew Kragen’s (Timothy Hutton) entourage and predictably, she comes upon a senator (Giancarlo Esposito) who promised to attend, and then ignored, her hometown’s church service. Predictability, however, is not what director Wayne Wang is about in all the films he’s made with women as the major stars. Hutton does play the predictable, rich, unendurable jerk, and naturally there’s a comeuppance, but because of Latifah and in turn Georgia, there’s at least a little bit of insight into him that doesn’t only come from the screenplay by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman. Gerard Depardieu is the other major highlight besides Latifah because Wang understands what others don’t always see in Depardieu. To cast him as an overly buffoonish Frenchman is beside the point about who he is, which is how “102 Dalmatians” sadly pigeonholed him. Cast him in a role that feels organic and Depardieu becomes even more human. As the chef at the hotel, he has such a good rapport with Georgia and is so charmed by her vast knowledge of cooking, that Depardieu himself appears jovial while playing Didier. It’s as if he’s relieved by the break he gets from playing roles in his home country.

LL Cool J is the other surprising personality. Gone is the flash and bling found in his music videos. No longer is there the feeling of him having a cast of thousands waiting on his every move. Sean is almost as plain looking as Georgia and is just a working guy who wants something better in life. It’s the road to mature, warm-hearted roles for LL Cool J and clearly, he can do it.

It’s nice that “Last Holiday” doesn’t overreach in its message to always live life everyday and to never let a single day fall to inhibitions. Under another director, the Grandhotel Pupp staff would look ridiculous in their antics, but Wang even imbues them with the proper warmth, setting the right stage for Georgia and a most wonderful time through Latifah’s performance. She’s always had an uninhibited way about her that sparkles and it’s always omnipresent here. The film’s charm works.

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