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Queen Latifah is a joy to behold in poignant 'Last Holiday'

Queen Latifah is a buxom woman from New Jersey who used to wear Afrocentric pantsuits and rap about sisters standing up for themselves. Now she sells Pizza Hut pizza, makes lite-jazz records, and stars in disposable hit comedies. No one looks at her and thinks, ''Julia Roberts." But ''Last Holiday," in its feathery, good-hearted way, is enough to give you pause.

Latifah plays a plainspoken, churchgoing penny pincher and aspiring chef named Georgia Byrd, who, after she's given three weeks to live, finds the old new lease on life. She quits her job selling cookware at a New Orleans department store, takes her ample savings, and flies to Prague where she checks into the $4,000-a-night presidential suite at the gargantuan Grandhotel Pupp. Latifah frees her hair from her bun, tries on an evening gown, and turns ravishing by the 30-minute mark.

There might be comedy in watching a voluptuous African-American woman drop a lot of cash in front of surprised white Europeans. But this movie has better things to do. Latifah, for one thing, doesn't put a chip on Georgia's shoulder. Georgia's take-me-as-I-am personality is a big hit with the hotel staff, which is presumably thrilled to serve a woman who is one of them. She, of course, treats them all like old friends.

The hotel happens to be crawling with people loosely connected to Georgia's American life: the sniveling owner (Timothy Hutton) of her old department store is in cahoots with the Louisiana senator (Giancarlo Esposito) who's off on a ski weekend when he should be meeting the congregation at her church. They and their friends see Georgia looking fabulous, palling around with the Pupp's chef (Gerard Depardieu, who else?), and receiving the staff's attention and assume she's a bigwig, too. She never forgets where she came from but is pleased to have the company.

The supporting cast, which includes Ranjit Chowdhry as Georgia's nincompoop doctor and Susan Kellerman as a severe Swede, is top-notch. And LL Cool J, who plays Georgia's love interest, a co-worker named Sean, has never been so boyish. I don't know whose idea this was (two tough rap legends jaunting in Hollywood froth), but the irony is inspired.

''Last Holiday" is a remake of a 1950 Alec Guinness vehicle. But really it's ''Pretty Woman" for self-sufficient women who don't need a man but wouldn't mind having one around. When I mentioned Julia Roberts earlier, it's only because it's the highest compliment you pay an actress when crowning a star. Still, it sounds stale; when people talk about ''the next Julia Roberts," they've always conducted the search with dollar signs in their eyes.

No one who caught Roberts when that silly movie first came out was thinking about her market potential. She just provoked a lot of the right feelings in people, the most important being joy. Watching Latifah in ''Last Holiday" left me with the same happiness. Director Wayne Wang and his screenwriters sometimes ape ''Pretty Woman." But Latifah's obvious forebear is Pearl Bailey, who was just as regal and straight-up.

Even when she has a breakdown during a church sermon that turns into a riotous gospel number, Latifah lowers the volume on her bawdiness. After Georgia's diagnosis, she pores over the dreams that now can't come true, including a date with Sean, and Latifah is so affectingly sad sitting there weeping at that kitchen table it's all you can do not to get up and hold a Kleenex up to the screen. This part means something to her no matter how recycled it might seem.

The movie extends that pride to its workaday New Orleans locations, which were filmed before Hurricane Katrina struck and appear here as touching matters of fact. Georgia's eventual homesickness gives ''Last Holiday" an unintended, but very real poignancy. Not only do we have the confirmation of a star, we have a persuasive argument for rebuilding a city.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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