Some preface: This is one of my go-to movies when I’m sick or feeling down, and I’ve likely watched it more than most people. Its opening scene is one of the reasons I’ve taken an interest in cooking (though I’m still not very good at it), and I enjoy Queen Latifah as an actress.
THE FILM: Last Holiday, Paramount, 2006.
PRINCIPAL ACTORS: Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Timothy Hutton
SYNOPSIS: After she’s diagnosed with a terminal illness, a shy woman decides to take a European vacation.
THE CRITIQUE: God can be a tricky thing to handle in movies, depending on what kind of movie you’re making. When it comes down to it, everyone has a different vision of God, but tends to ascribe the same qualities of omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, and as comedians often state, a sense of humor. The God of Last Holiday, for example, has an almost trickster sensibility, playing a prank on one of his (as God is considered male in this film) congregation to push her out of stasis and take a different path in life. (And I’m sure that those who’ve read Coyote’s Creed are now saying “Ohhhhhhh….”)
But the God of Last Holiday is also a micromanager, which is a rather common trait in movies, film, and TV. It’s considered an easy cheat in screenwriting for when you need something to happen, but have no explanation why it should happen at all. You might’ve heard of it: deus ex machina. It can either be attributed to sheer dumb luck, karma, or the actions of a rather attentive deity. When I first started studying Buddhism, my mentor asked me to start watching the show My Name Is Earl to understand the idea of “Hollywood Karma”. After I asked “but isn’t Karma a Hindu belief?” he responded, “Yes, but firstly, the lesson of Hollywood Karma applies to all religions, more accurately, America’s general perception of religions, and secondly, not many are familiar with Buddhism or Hinduism so they’ll likely assume you know about it. This is a nice way to save yourself from having to correct them constantly.” Hollywood Karma is the concept that karma pays off almost immediately. If you do something nice now, you’ll get something nice later. If you’re bad now, you’ll get the consequences. It’s a variant of the Just World Hypothesis, the belief that bad things only happen to bad people.
Hollywood God is a slightly different creature, in that it serves as a means of critiquing a person’s relationship with God, rather than a society’s. As far as Hollywood God is concerned, you’re the only person on earth that matters, which, let’s face it, is the way a lot of people view their Creator, no matter which religion they follow. And Hollywood God is only likely to get involved when something bad happens, because that’s the only time God ever truly enters the picture for the protagonists. Much as we have a social contract with everyone around us (which boils down to “don’t screw me, I won’t screw you” at its basest essence), many of us believe we have such a contract with God as well, as is shown in the following scene: (PREFACE: Georgia (Queen Latifah) has been told she has a terminal illness, and has 3 weeks to live, and finally breaks down during a sermon at her church)
It’s best summed up with “I followed the rules, I don’t deserve this!” It can also be seen as the Anger stage of the 5 stages of Grief. As the Just World Fallacy goes, bad things, in this case, a terminal case of brain cancer, are not supposed to happen to people who follow the Ten Commandments and don’t rock the boat at work or sleep around. The scene begins as a plea for a reason, but ends up as a demand, like ordering a waiter to take a steak back to the kitchen until the chef gives them what they ordered. God is only called in times to tragedy, to justify the pain and suffering that the protagonist must suddenly endure, but in the end will put them on a much better path. At the end of the scene, Georgia leaves the church with a “to hell with this…” sort of gesture, figuring that she’ll never get the answers she’s asking for.
At that point, the film could take a much different tack, as could a critic decide that it’s because Georgia abandons her faith that her life suddenly improves, and that her illness isn’t terminal, or even real. Then again, that critic would have to explain the many many instances of blind luck and how serendipity follows Georgia, as it does with many comedic protagonists, like a lovesick puppy. Instead, it’s Hollywood God, micromanaging and putting the exact people in the exact right place, as well as causing a roulette wheel to hit 17 three times in a row to replace all of the money that Georgia has spent on her titular last holiday. However, in every scene of perfect serendipity, Georgia ascribes it to a meddling God having a bit of fun with her. When she writes her “If you’re reading this, my disease has run its course” letter, she writes it over her Bible, and leaves it inside next to a passage from the Book of Micah. It’s only when she finally reaches the Acceptance stage of the 5 stages of grief that God isn’t mentioned, which, ironically, is when Georgia receives the answer to her earlier demand of “Why me?” Why does Georgia believe she’s going to die? Because God wanted her to reach that end point, to say “I will laugh more, I will love more, I’ll see the world. I won’t be so afraid” and actually mean it. Granted, it takes a lot of micromanaging on God’s part, hooking Georgia up with Congressmen and celebrity chefs and bringing down the CEO of the company she used to work for, as well as winning over $100k at roulette, surviving a black diamond run with no prior snowboarding experience, and BASE jumping off a dam where quite a few people have died.
In the end, it’s not a criticism of God, Last Holiday serves as another example of how we as a people would prefer to see our collective higher powers, or more accurately, how we want them to see us. We want to believe that we are special and deserve individual attention from our Creator over everyone else, that he should justify the terrible things in our lives, but supply us with good fortune without any comment from us other than snerking “Oh, you!” For the viewer, who gets to see everything, including everyone getting their just rewards in the epilogue, this vision of a Just World is kept intact. In Last Holiday‘s case, though, the instant gratification is requested, nay demanded in the “Why me?” scene, but it’s never expected after that. Georgia may often wonder aloud why it’s all happening, but the anger has vanished, she’s simply finding her way to a better state of mind, and a better relationship with herself and her Creator. The world may not be just, but that’s what faith, not only in God, but also as Georgia learns, in one’s self, is there for.