Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Day Late and a Dollar Short (Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All Rights Reserved

The film was A Day Late and a Dollar Short, a quite remarkable if overly melodramatic Lifetime production with a (mostly) all-Black cast headed by Whoopi Goldberg (who’s also credited as “executive producer,” a catch-all title which can mean virtually anything from active creative involvement to just another slice of the pie for a star) as Viola, matriarch of an extended African-American middle-class family (the fact that anyone made a movie about American Blacks who aren’t gang-bangers, welfare moms terrorized by them, or hard-scrabble rural poor people scraping by like the one Whoopi played in her star-making movie, The Color Purple, is a miracle in itself!) who as the movie begins is facing the loss of both her husband (of 36 years, enough that their grown children have teenage children of their own!) and her life. She’s losing her life to chronic asthma brought on by a lifetime of smoking, and her husband Cecil (Ving Rhames, for once playing a believable, multidimensional character instead of a bad-ass killer or a comic-relief cliché) to what she (and we) at first think is simple ennui but turns out to have a more flesh-and-blood cause: Barbara, the town “welfare widow” (this takes place somewhere in suburban Illinois), who’s a single mom raising several kids of her own and when we meet her is also visibly pregnant with a baby she claims is Cecil’s. Cecil has kept the family together and provided for through the restaurant he co-owns with a business partner (who’s carried on a non-serious flirtation with Viola for decades), only he’s got restive in that life and he talks about selling their house, buying a boat and sailing around the Caribbean. This isn’t exactly how Viola envisioned spending their twilight years, both because her dream has always been to visit Paris (indeed, she named one of her daughters “Paris” in honor of the French capital!) and because her family is so relentlessly dysfunctional they still need her in her mom role.

Viola has three daughters and a son, Lewis (Mekhi Phifer), who left his wife and son, has ducked his child support and wasted his life drinking, getting into fights and ending up arrested and in police custody — from which he’s just being released as this movie begins. (In a nice touch, he’s shown checking out of jail with a copy of a book by Sartre that he had on him when he was arrested: an indication that he’s smarter than you’d think from the way he’s wasting his life.) The daughters are Paris (Anika Noni Rose, the only cast member besides Goldberg and Rhames I’d actually heard of before; she was the largely forgotten third member of “The Dreams” — i.e., the Supremes — in the film Dreamgirls), a celebrity chef whose own stresses and marital burn-out have led her to a prescription pill addiction; Charlotte (Tichina Arnold), who seems to have a workable marriage going and who lords that fact over Paris and is therefore thunderstruck when she learns her husband is having an affair; and Janelle (Kimberly Elise), whose marriage to her daughter Shanise’s (Shanise Banton) father broke up years before and who trusts her second husband to provide for her and her daughter until … well, that would be getting ahead of the story. A Day Late and a Dollar Short began life as a 2002 novel by Terry McMillan, an African-American female author who specialized in creating stories about relatively affluent Black women having essentially the same sorts of problems and crises as relatively affluent white women; she got her 15 minutes of fame in the early 1990’s with the novel Waiting to Exhale, about a quartet of young middle-class Black women and their affairs with men. It was filmed in 1995 with Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett as the stars and Forest Whitaker directing (during that long interregnum between Bird and The Last King of Scotland when he took up direction because there were so few strong acting roles available for Black men, and especially for Black men too heavy-set to be sexy), and McMillan went on to a series of reliable best-sellers but not one that became another blockbuster hit (though three of her other books were filmed and one, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, did well enough that its title reference became common slang).

A Day Late and a Dollar Short turned out to be an interesting movie but one with an all too common failing of Lifetime’s fare: after a while, it just started to choke on its own melodrama. It’s hard to tell how much of that is Terry McMillan’s fault and how much is the responsibility of the screenwriter, Shernold Edwards (at least two major changes were made between novel and film — I haven’t read the book but there’s a summary on Wikipedia — Lewis’s history of being sexually abused as a child wasn’t included, and Charlotte’s Gay son was dropped from the dramatis personae; also the novel’s setting was Las Vegas, but no doubt Lifetime wanted something more placid, more Middle America-y and also easier to reproduce in Canada), but after a marvelous opening in which Viola’s offspring reunite around her hospital bed — only to argue so loudly that Viola’s doctor, worried that his patients’ kids are putting such an emotional strain on her it’s going to hurt her chances for recovery, grimly jokes to them, “You’re so loud the people in the parking lot are beginning to take sides!” — one by one the kids are revealed to be monumentally dysfunctional. Viola tries to match Paris up with landscape architect Randall (Lyriq Bent, to my mind by far the sexiest male in the film) and he’s interested in her, but when he catches her popping pills he recalls his own history of addiction and the excuses he made for it and insists on getting her to “a meeting,” which she not surprisingly rejects. When Lewis takes off his son’s dirty shirt he notices his chest is bruised, and concludes his ex-wife’s new husband is beating his son; and, being the hot-head he is, he goes over to her home and confronts the guy — he’s white, a fact that’s been carefully kept from us until we actually see him as an on-screen character, and he informs Lewis that he’s going to raise the boy the way he sees fit and no drunk jailbird who’s bailed on his child support is going to get in his way, whereupon Lewis hauls off and hits the prick and is rewarded with a return to jail for his pains. Janelle has the bitterest comeuppance of all when he walks in on her husband literally fucking her daughter — “Now it looks like a Lifetime movie!” I joked — and as if her pill addiction wasn’t enough of a problem, Paris also has to deal with her teenage son not only dating a rich white girl but knocking her up. Viola dies just before the last commercial break, but if you think Whoopi Goldberg’s part in this movie is over you’ve got another think coming: she’s left notes for all her children and her husband to read to each other after she’s gone, and through this rather transparent device she’s able to engineer a family reconcilation and fix the lives of the other characters even from beyond the grave — while her own vision of the afterlife is, you guessed it, dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Despite its weaknesses, A Day Late and a Dollar Short is worth watching largely for the fineness of the acting; however much Whoopi Goldberg had to do with developing this project as well as appearing in it, it’s a welcome reminder that she can act, that she can do far more than her standup schtick and her earth-mother bit on the daytime TV show The View. Her performance is magnificent and so is Ving Rhames’; he’s an actor I’ve never much cared for, but that was probably more due to the way he was cast than his intrinsic talent. He’s great as a good but befuddled husband, facing the end of his marriage and the end of his wife’s life well ahead of schedule (Viola’s age isn’t specified in the film but it’s given in the book as 59), and all too aware of his responsibilities even if he can’t always bring himself to live up to them. The other actors are all quite fine; one sees the flaws in these people but still likes them and want to see them prevail, and as manipulative as the story seemed sometimes I quite liked it — even though, despite her success, it seems that Whoopi Goldberg was ill-used in her film career (partly her own fault for taking parts she never should have gone near, like Theodore Rex) and it’s a special pity she never played the role for which she seemed to have been made: a biopic of the great Black comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley.