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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Last Holiday

Besides Hoodwinked, the Essex Outlet Cinemas also premiered Last Holiday this week, which I have been looking forward to seeing because I can not think of two more charismatic stars on-screen than Queen Latifah and LL Cool J. When I arrived at the Essex Outlet Cinemas I was practically giddy. There were my favorite concession queens Heather and Nancy as well as Rob and Josh and Barry even made a brief appearance from his haunts running the projectors up in the rafters somewhere. I always feel like it is a family reunion when I go to the Essex Outlet Cinemas, and I just wish they didn't have to work out front (or upstairs in Barry's case) while I get the pleasure of settling in to my cushy rocker and enjoying the show. Oh well, life's tough. I guess someone has to enjoy the movie and it might as well be me.

Last Holiday is both a dream and nightmare come true. Queen Latifah's Georgia Byrd has led a small life in New Orleans, singing in her church choir and working as a clerk in the cookware department of one of Kragen's large chain of stores. She goes home at night and prepares meals for her next door neighbor's kid from recipes she gathers and puts in her "Possibilities" scrapbook or from watching cooking shows featuring one of her chef idols like Emeril Lagasse. She has a not-so-secret crush on Sean Matthews (LL Cool J), who works in the outdoors department at Kragen's and is as shy as Georgia seems to be. Life, it seems, is full of anything but possibilities for poor Georgia until a slight accidental bump on the head at work requires her to get a catscan as a company precaution to preclude her from any frivilous lawsuit at a later time. Kragen's, you see, is not exactly friendly to its' employees, and it provides medical care (second rate at that) only when it is in the company's best interests to do so. That's when the bad news comes. Georgia, it seems, has only three weeks left to live, a victim of a rare brain ailment called Lambington's Disease.

From this nightmare of despair Georgia pulls herself up and resolves that she will not just sit and die without at least making some of her dreams come true. She quits her job after years of being browbeaten (doing it in a way that most everyone can secretly appreciate), cashes in all her bonds and withdraws her savings and heads off to the Czech Republic, to the Grandhotel Pupp (and for what it's worth, yes, it's a real place), where she plans to dine on her favorite chef's greatest meals and pamper herself with spa treatments until the end inevitably comes.

While this might sound like it would lead to dull viewing, it does anything but that. Latifah generates such warmth and comedic ability that her expressions alone make for great laughs, but the situation at the Pupp turns complicated and screwball (in a Frank Capra kind of way) when who should be staying at the same hotel but Matthew Kragen himself, the owner of the stores where Georgia recently worked. Along with Kragen (slimy Timothy Hutton, a far cry from his boyish days in Ordinary People) and his mistress (effectively played by Alicia Witt), are a Senator (Giancarlo Esposito) and a Congressman (Michael Nouri), both involved with Kragen in some shady Capitol Hill backdoor dealings to line their respective pockets. Through a series of misunderstandings each begins to mistrust the others in their secret pact as they believe Georgia has somehow formed a allegiance with one of the others or is a federal undercover agent sent to expose their scam.

Along the way, Georgia does meet and charm her culinary idol, Chef Didier, played with bounce and entertainment by Gérard Depardieu. The chemistry he and Queen Latifah share could have filled a whole movie by itself rather than a small sub-plot, but their friendship among the snowy mountaintops appears genuine and touching.

Of course by the end all of this house of cards is bound to collapse, and it does. It is not spoiling much to reveal the obvious: Georgia survives and finds happiness, Kragen reforms, Sean professes his true love, and Emerill Lagasse even drops by for a bite of dinner prepared by Georgia herself.

Studios generally don't release too many great movies during the bleak winter months. After the December holiday rush and before the summer blockbusters begin again in May it can seem that substance is more an accident than a plan. Well, this is one happy accident. Much better than what the word on the page could hope to deliver, Last Holiday is a laugh-out-loud comedy that also has heart. Latifah and LL play people you'd want to go on holiday with again and again. I know I would.

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