J.B. Priestley used to be one of the most famous voices in 20th- century English literature. Today, the mention of his name is more apt to result in a blank stare than anything else. His plays are still known, but a quick search of Amazon.com shows only one of his novels, The Magicians, as readily available in America (with a sales rank somewhere beneath the million mark). It’s a shameful situation for an author whose last book was published in 1977.
Priestley was what is known as a “man of letters.” He would turn his hand to anything literary — novels, plays, critical essays, political and sociological writing, biography, autobiography. Several of his novels and plays were made into films, but only once did he write an original screenplay: for a film he co-produced, Last Holiday.
That screenplay resulted in the only truly inspired film for the workmanlike director Henry Cass and afforded Alec Guinness one of his best roles as George Bird, a timid agricultural equipment salesman who is misdiagnosed with Lampington’s disease and told he has only a few weeks to live. Cashing in his savings and insurance, Bird sets out to have a taste of “high life” at a posh seaside hotel where his new attitude on life finds him being taken seriously by important people and his luck becomes almost magical.
Flash forward to 2006 and we find Queen Latifah inheriting the mantle of Alec Guinness (can Obi-Wan-Kenobi be far behind?) as Georgia Bird, with the reliably uneven Wayne Wang in the director’s chair and the authors of the big screen How the Grinch Stole Christmas providing a revamped screenplay. Certain things are a given here: No way in hell this version is going to go all the way and kill off Queen Latifah in the last reel, and the comedic aspects of the story will be broadened. The latter results in about 30 minutes of high-grade cinematic fat being added to the proceedings.
The surprise, though, is that this new Last Holiday — while nowhere near the quality of the original — isn’t an outright travesty. Some aspects of it, in fact, are pretty clever Americanized updatings. Though a staunch socialist, Priestley couldn’t resist taking a poke at the inadequacies of early socialized medicine with the film’s overworked and generally inept doctor. Here, the script turns its aims on the inherent flaws in HMO health care. Priestley would likely have approved, and the same could be said of the new film’s unflattering stance on big business.
As an agnostic, he would less likely have cared for the new movie’s slightly religious bent, but this is hardly a major aspect of the film and it feels less like propaganda than part and parcel of the character of Georgia Bird. What he’d make of the excessive broad comedy is another matter, but there’s no denying that much of the tone of his screenplay — the theme of “failing” at life through being afraid to act — is still there. Or it’s there up till the cop-out ending, which is less damaging than the appallingly cheesy addition of a cheap post-fade-out series of “what happened next” stills of the characters with “clever” updates.
However, what keeps Last Holiday afloat when it’s less than its source material is the collective charm of its stars — Queen Latifah, LL Cool J and Gerard Depardieu. Even when the film threatens to crash and burn — and that happens a good bit — these actors are on hand to provide the characters a likable quality that neither Wang, nor the writers, have much to do with. That’s perhaps not inapt, since this is first and foremost a star vehicle for the Queen, and it’s the best such she’s had to date. OK, so it’s not all that hard to better things like Bringing Down the House, The Cookout and Taxi, but Last Holiday does have some intrinsic merit. The pity is that it could have had more. Rated PG-13 for some sexual references.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke