Last Holiday

Jan 18, 2006 at 12:00 am

So, who thought to cast a movie starring hip-hop heavyweights Queen Latifah and LL Cool J alongside renowned French dramatic actor Gérard Depardieu, garnished with a cameo from Emeril Lagasse? Whatever the inspiration, the unlikely casting combination works for director Wayne Wang's update of the 1950 comedy Last Holiday. Aside from some unfortunate attempts at physical humor, it's surprisingly charming, thanks mostly to leading lady Latifah.

She plays mousy Georgia Byrd, a meek sales clerk and enthusiastic foodie who, upon learning she has just weeks to live, decides to go buck wild. She tells off her boss, flips out at church, then slips away to Europe, set on spending her life savings and last days eating grand meals, wearing fine clothes and enjoying extreme sports.

Her highness may seem an unlikely substitute for Sir Alec Guinness, who originated the role. But why not? Both claim royalty and are impossibly likable on screen.

Latifah has been the best thing about most of the movies she's appeared in, ruling the big screen in stellar flicks like Chicago and brightening up duller ones like Bringing Down the House.

As for LL Cool J, the usually macho and always muscular rapper developed his comedy chops in the '90s TV series In the House. He plays Sean, a shy and dorky co-worker who's the object of Georgia's affection — more mama's boy than "Mama Said Knock You Out." When she disappears without a word, Sean slips into hero mode and sets off to bring her back home.

Twenty years ago, no one would have fathomed such a description for the pair, but here, they're honestly cute together, absorbed in sugar-pie, honey-bunch puppy love.

But other parts of Last Holiday weren't conceived or executed as well. Georgia's European adventures — parachute jumping off a dam, snowboarding — play out like the screwball antics of lesser movies. If you've seen one wacky skiing or snowboarding lesson, you've seen a million.

The movie works better when it's not shooting for over the top, as Latifah can handle playing intimate moments as adeptly as she can let it all hang out in a role like Mama Morton.

There's a great scene after Georgia discovers she's dying. She sits in her kitchen, looking through a scrapbook of her favorite recipes — food she'd made but didn't eat to avoid the unwanted calories. "I should have eaten that," she cries. It's a trivial moment, but Latifah injects such warmth and humanity into her character, the regret feels real.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].