Whoopi Goldberg wears so many hats it’s easy to forget that she can be a pretty fine actress when she gets the opportunity. Such is the case with “A Day Late and a Dollar Short,” a crazily soapy Lifetime movie so steeped in melodrama that the two responses are to either roll one’s eyes or to happily succumb — and keep a box of tissues handy. Cast to the hilt, this Lifetime movie is the network’s latest to feature a predominantly African-American ensemble, in practical terms wedding the network’s older-female niche to a demographic that’s often underserved on TV in regard to serious drama.
Based on the bestseller by Terry McMillan (“How Stella Got Her Groove Back”), the movie stars Goldberg as Viola Price, the ailing matriarch of a big, fractious, squabbling family. That includes her estranged husband (Ving Rhames) and four grown kids, played by Anika Noni Rose, Tichina Arnold, Kimberly Elise and Mekhi Phifer.
Thirty years of smoking have caught up with Viola, and her family’s screaming matches have left her feeling she needs to take action and try to repair some of the damage while she still can. “I can’t have them killing each other after I’m gone,” she says in the voiceover narration.
Yet to say everyone has issues would be the epitome of understatement — including some very unpleasant stuff involving Viola’s grandchildren. Faced with a “Get your affairs in order” diagnosis, Viola goes about the task of concealing the bad news from her family, while simultaneously trying to fix them, or at least, put them on a more even path, so that she can go to the great beyond feeling like everything will be OK.
The nature of the problems, alas, prevents facile solutions. That sort of inevitably forces the movie (directed by Stephen Tolkin, from an adaptation by Shernold Edwards) to shoehorn a lot of business into the TV-movie format, racing through the schmaltzy part near the end. Chalk it up as a tribute to the actors — and perhaps Jeff Beal’s score — that it plays as well as it does.
Lifetime obviously has a certain formula to its movies, and by that measure, the literary underpinnings and cast reveal “A Day Late and a Dollar Short” as a slightly more ambitious offering, without really deviating from the basic template.
One could ask for more, but like Viola, after 30 years of inhaling this stuff, it might be a little too late to start.