All hail Queen Latifah: Her inimitable presence yanks inane premise out of gutter and into audiences’ hearts

“Last Holiday”

Paramount Pictures

Directed by Wayne Wang

Written by Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman and J.B. Priestley

Starring: Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Timothy Hutton, Giancarlo Esposito, Alicia Witt and Grard Depardieu

Rated PG-13/122 minutes

Opens Jan. 13, 2006

Three out of four stars

Some actors are supported by snappy scripts and talented filmmakers. Other actors, by their very presence, can lift a smelly movie out of the garbage and convince us that it smells like roses.

Queen Latifah is one such life force. She strides through her movies with so much confrontational confidence, so much good-natured, pat-us-on-the-back humor, that we look past the doldrums and admire the charismatic centerpiece.

In Wayne Wang’s “Last Holiday,” Latifah plays Georgia Byrd, a shy retail clerk at one of those “everything-and-the-kitchen-sink” stores. She whips up culinary delights for her customers using recipes she’s learned from that BAM! guy on TV and from her idol, Chef Didier (Grard Depardieu).

Georgia daydreams about living happily-ever-after with Sean (LL Cool J), the sweet hunk who sells patio furniture on the floor below hers.

In fact, Georgia has a scrapbook named “Possibilities.” It’s filled with wedding photographs…only her and Sean’s heads have been glued over the other people’s heads. Perhaps if Georgia were a 13-year-old girl, this might not seem so, oh, I don’t know, pathetic? She isn’t that hopeless, so the scrapbook is a bit much.

Early on, Georgia and Sean bumble through some ill attempts at flirting. The script pushes those scenes beyond natural human reluctance and into painful contrivance.

Jokes fall flat, scenes go on a little too long-for the first 20 minutes, it seems as though “Last Holiday” deserves its spot in the January dumping ground.

But then Georgia gets some bad news: A brain scan reveals a deadly disease. She has three weeks to live.

Bummer.

Never mind that the doctor is obviously inept and that Georgia never bothers to get a second scan from a different doctor.

She sees this as an opportunity to do everything she’s ever wanted to do: She quits her job, cleans out her savings and jets to an ber-posh, European hotel to bask in a pampered lifestyle.

Her inhibitions gone, Georgia begins to say what’s on her mind. She’s not rude or bossy, but stands up for the hotel staff when snobby guests berate them. She pays humble and accurate compliments to Chef Didier, who just so happens to manage the hotel kitchen. She gives frank love advice to Ms. Burns (Alicia Witt), the undervalued mistress of a super-successful jerk (Timothy Hutton).

In other words, her impending death has finally motivated her to live. It’s corny and broad and delightfully infectious. Watching Georgia blossom into a warm, inviting, adventurous woman is sort of inspiring.

Essentially, she’s become the Queen Latifah we know and enjoy, distracting us from the story’s inanities and holding our attention with her personality alone.

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