Dir: Wayne Wang. US. 2006.111mins.

Queen Latifah came of age,as an actress, in 2002's Chicago (whichtook $306m worldwide) and the following spring's Bringing Down The House (a global $162m), which collectively helpedlaunch her film career into more rarified air.

From her earliestdays, though - whether on her platinum-selling rap albums or in something like 1996'sensemble bank heist tale Set It Off -Latifah's strengths have been her brassiness,sassiness and volume. The bigger, the better: she's always been able to locateand articulate a recognisable point-of-view amid somuch swirling craziness.

So it's strange toendure something like Last Holiday,which represents a wan attempt to dampen down so much of what makes its starspecial. Alternately forced-cute and painfully obvious, it proves a weird,shot-on-location, multi-cultural mash-up - imagine a jumble of Under The TuscanSun and How Stella Got Her GrooveBack - with a declamatory litany of costume changes and falsely empoweringimparted life lessons.

Last Holiday opened in the US to $15.7m last weekend: good enoughfor it to take third place, behind Hoodwinkedand Glory Road, in a tight debutframe. It's a figure that should also ensure the film tracks slightly higher inthe US than Latifah's last two headline outings, Barber Shop spin-off Beauty Shop and Taxi - her ill-fated action-comedy pairing with Jimmy Fallon - whicheach pulled in around $36m domestically, though the latter doubled that amount international.

While Latifah's headline features have tended to take more athome than away, Last Holiday shouldsee an additional overseas box-office bump thanks to its European setting. Suchmodest theatrical returns will be offset via consistent auxiliary success,where the movie's to-scale charms will play better.

A shy cookwaredepartment store clerk, Georgia Byrd (Latifah) livesa modest and demure life, singing in her church choir and eschewing risk in favour of simplicity. Once she's told that she has but afew weeks to live - and is rejected by her healthcare provider for treatmentreimbursement - she cuts loose, cashing in her life's savings and leaving NewOrleans for a dream vacation in Europe.

She ends up atthe posh Grandhotel Pupp inthe Czech Republic, blossoming as she trades her sensible outfits for high-endfashion and indulges in all manner of culinary indulgences. (In one set pieceshe discovers skiing for the first time.)

Newlyuninhibited, she also befriends the hotel's venerated chef, Didier (GerardDepardieu), and teaches lessons to unscrupulous businessman Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton), conveniently also her boss, who'sconvinced by Georgia's blithe manner that she's actually a shrewd businessrival.

The requisitelove affair with sensitive co-worker Sean Matthews (LL Cool J) follows, feelingmore like a dictated necessity than an artful or even florid indulgence. In theend, Georgia learns of her misdiagnosis, something one could surmise fromJeffrey Price and Peter Seaman's problematic script, which has troublebalancing disparate tones throughout.

Director WayneWang, who burst onto the scene in earnest with 1993's The Joy Luck Club, has impressed most with a string of esoteric andsometimes impressionistic character pieces, including Smoke, Blue In The Face and TheCenter Of The World. He previously segued into mainstream fare with theserviceable Anywhere But Here, but Last Holiday feels more of a piece withthe joyless and anonymous Maid InManhattan. There's little of note to the direction, and nothing beyond thepromise of a pay cheque to particularly suggest hisinterest or psychological investment in the project.

GiancarloEsposito is under-utilised in a small supportingrole. Latifah, meanwhile, generally acquits herself -but this tepid outing proves that her talents are best suited to projects whereshe shies away from such early forced timidity.

Paramount Pictures

US distribution
Paramount Pictures

International distribution

Robert Zemeckis
Steve Starkey
Richard Vane
Peter Seaman
Jeffrey Price

Laurence Mark
Jack Rapke

Jeffrey Price & Peter Seaman, based upon a screenplay by JB Priestley

Geoffrey Simpson

Production design
William Arnold

Deirdre Slevin

George Fenton

Main cast
Queen Latifah
LL Cool J
Gerard Depardieu
Timothy Hutton, Alicia Witt
Giancarlo Esposito
Michael Nouri
Susan Kellerman
Jane Adams