Friday, December 6, 2013

In the Midst of Life...

Better than the original (sorry, Alec Guiness!)

I originally wrote this review, with thoughts about the meaning of the film, in February 2008. What I did not know then was that The Last Holiday DVD was the last post I would ever make on the Paper Frigate blog.

Since I have lost access to edit and add posts to that blog, I will simply reshare them here from time to time. That way, the posts of which I am proudest will eventually be part of my new blog.

The mistaken diagnosis of imminent death is a rich field for comedy writers, giving them a chance to explore the honest life values of the protagonist, without actually requiring the character to die. What will the character choose to do with the supposed remaining days of life? In Send Me No Flowers, Rock Hudson's hypochondriac George tries to set up his wife (Doris Day) with a safe mate in a future without him. George's shallow self-focus turns one-eighty with the expected onset of death.

Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) of 
The Last Holiday has the opposite of Hudson's neurosis; she is shy and self-effacing. She cooks Cordon Bleu-level meals, but only for others — she herself eats only Lean Cuisine. She sings in a choir, but has to be told by the director to sing out. "I thought I was," is her puzzled response. And her love for fellow Kragen department store employee Sean Matthews (LL Cool J) is unrequited only because she doesn't dare say anything to him.

A bump on the head changes her life. A faulty CAT scan shows blank areas in her brain that lead her doctor to give her the death sentence: she has three, perhaps four, weeks to live. Suddenly, her "Book of Possibilities", in which she has recorded all the things she wants to do someday, is a list of things she will never accomplish.

Like George, Georgia makes a one-eighty. She cashes in her savings, splurges on a first-class trip to Prague and books into the ritzy Grandhotel Pupp, in the Presidential Suite, and makes up for lost future-time by ordering seven meals at dinner. 

Coincidentally staying at the resort are Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton), owner of the department store chain where Georgia was mis-diagnosed, and her Congressman and a Senator with whom Kragen is trying to work some kind of back-room deal. Georgia's straight talk and lust for life puts her into an unexpected competition with Kragen for the respect of these men, the star chef of the Pupp, Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu), and even Kragen's mistress (played by Alicia Witt).

Done wrong, this story would be schmaltzy or trite. But Queen Latifah has the presence to pull off both the shy, withdrawn Georgia and her fully-blossomed Madame Byrd character. Brilliant writing (including credit for the 1950 Alec Guiness version of the film, written by JB Priestly) with a perfect casting of Hutton as the unlikable mega-mart mogul and Depardieu as the goofy-but-wise chef combine to let Latifah shine.

This one goes on my "watch often" shelf.