All too often, when television offers up a heartwarming family story around the holidays, it turns out to be some sappy, sentimental tale of love, loss, and redemption that s meant to give us a warm glow but instead makes us feel as if we ve chugged a quart of curdled eggnog.
At first glance, A Perfect Day, premiering at 8 tonight on TNT, might seem to fit that gooey, made-for-TV mold. First-time author unexpectedly hits the big time and is seduced by fame and success, becoming a jerk and abandoning his family, friends, and ultimately his own humanity. Will he realize his mistake before it s too late?
Gosh, that sounds great. Hey, isn t there a football game on tonight? Or maybe a Peanuts Christmas special?
But wait. If you turn up your nose at A Perfect Day, you ll be making a mistake. It turns out that it s actually a cleverly constructed tale with a solid cast, and though some of the plot turns won t exactly shock you, there s a nice twist at the end that you ll probably never see coming.
The story is based on a book of the same name by Richard Paul Evans, who also wrote The Christmas Box, a publishing phenomenon in the mid- 90s. Evans says A Perfect Day is based very loosely on his own experiences after his first book became a bestseller.
As the story opens, radio sales exec Robert Harlan (Rob Lowe, formerly of The West Wing) gets canned, and when he can t find another job to support his wife and young daughter, he goes into a funk. But with the encouragement of an extraordinarily supportive wife (Paget Brewster, Huff), he goes back to work on an unfinished book that he had started years before.
After completing the book, which chronicles his wife s experiences with her dying father, he sends it off to literary agents around the country. And waits. And digs ditches for his brother while he s waiting. And gets discouraged all over again.
But finally, after lots of rejections, the book gets picked up by a small-time agent played by Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under). She sees something special in the feel-good book and in Robert as well.
Before long, the book, which is called The Perfect Day, begins to climb the best-seller lists, and Robert is swept up in a blur of book signings, personal appearances, and red-eye flights. After a time, the excitement of sudden and unexpected success gives way to something darker.
The now-famous author finds that selling his book means crisscrossing the country on promotional tours, while spending less and less time at home with his family. And though he s basically a decent guy, when forced to choose between fame and family, he is seduced into making the wrong choice.
And speaking of seductions, there s an exotic publishing assistant who has some ideas of her own about a perfect day, or night, or whatever, with the handsome author.
Over time, Robert virtually abandons his wife and daughter and drops his loyal agent in favor of a big-time deal maker who also represents the likes of Tom Clancy and John Grisham.
And during an appearance with Larry King (who plays his fawning self in a cameo role), Robert doesn t even credit his wife s true story for inspiring his book, instead blathering on pretentiously about seeing himself as an avant-garde writer along the lines of Fuentes and Camus.
As Robert steadily becomes more arrogant and self-absorbed, he begins bumping into a mysterious stranger named Michael (Christopher Lloyd), an old guy who seems to know an awful lot about him. Michael informs the author that he s a jerk, and tells him something else, too that he s going to die before too long, maybe as soon as Christmas Day.
Wow. Talk about your holiday depression.
Is Michael an angel? A stalker? Is he the loony Doc Brown, deposited in this movie by his time-traveling DeLorean from Back to the Future?
Can t tell you that here, but I can tell you that Rob Lowe does a good job of carrying this movie, elevating it above the run-of-the-mill made-for-TV flick. As Lowe s pretty-boy looks have begun to morph, ever so slowly, into a more weathered maturity, it seems like he s become a better actor.
A Perfect Day is the latest in a series of TNT original movies produced under the Johnson & Johnson Spotlight Presentation banner. Others have included such critically acclaimed productions as Door to Door with William H. Macy; Miss Lettie and Me, starring Mary Tyler Moore and Burt Reynolds, and The Ron Clark Story, with Matthew Perry.
A Perfect Day is a worthy addition to that group, and it s also dare I say it? a heartwarming family story.