A gust of wistful, tragic irony haunts "Last Holiday" in a way the filmmakers could never have intended and seem loath to acknowledge. It's the proverbial elephant in the room, and even a plus-sized comic talent like Queen Latifah is ill-equipped to conceal it.
The director is Wayne Wang (“Maid in Manhattan"), a closet cynic who alternates his edgier work (“The Center of the World") with buoyantly corny Cinderella fantasies like the one before us.
Georgia Byrd (Latifah) is a single, long-suffering cookware clerk who lives in pre-Katrina New Orleans, in a grungy neighborhood that could easily pass for that stricken city's now-infamous Ninth Ward. Georgia works in a department store that happens to have its own clinic and CAT scan machine, which is genius, really, auguring a day when you can get radiology treatments at Wal-Mart along with your economy-size pack of tube socks.
Sure enough, Georgia hits her head on the job and has to make use of that CAT scan machine, and, sure enough, she's diagnosed with a terminal brain disease that will kill her in weeks, if not days.
Taking stock, Georgia realizes that her life is a bland, self-torturing mess. (She doesn't even taste the lavish gourmet meals she makes at home every night, pushing them aside for the dreaded Lean Cuisine.) So she liquidates her retirement fund, bids adieu to hunky co-worker Sean (LL Cool J) and heads off to the super-swanky Grand Hotel Pupp in the Czech Republic, where her culinary hero Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu) resides.
What follows is like a soul-sistah hybrid of "Pretty Woman" and "Being There," as Georgia charms the staff and guests with her unabashed joie de vivre. She also arouses the jealousy and suspicion of smarmy retail magnate Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton), who mistakes her for a high-powered corporate saboteur out to scuttle his deal with a corrupt Louisiana politico (Giancarlo Esposito).
As mindlessly fun as it is to watch Latifah snowboard and try on tacky designer clothes, we also have to endure moments such as the one where a hotel employee offers this assessment of Georgia: "She's the most amazing person who ever came to this hotel ... a true existentialist!" For what? Stuffing her face with Didier's food?
Suffice to say, this fairy tale ends as most fairy tales do, albeit in a city that we know will soon be laid waste. (Principal photography in New Orleans wrapped before the hurricane.) That Wang chooses to make no mention of the disaster, not even a dedication, is baffling, because we can't look at Georgia without getting the depressing sense that she really will be swept away.
Starring: Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Timothy Hutton, Alicia Witt, Gerard Depardieu
Rated: PG-13 (some sexual references)
Running time: 108 minutes
Playing: Opens Friday in Valley theaters