In Christmas movies, someone always learns a lesson. He may be a Dickensian moneylender or a suicidal family man or a rotten little Grinch — it doesn’t really matter. In the TNT holiday film A Perfect Day, the protagonist is the most desperate of types…a writer! (Nasty, gruesome creatures.) Rob Lowe plays Robert Harlan, a laid-off salesman who, with the encouragement of his good-natured wife (Criminal Minds’ Paget Brewster) and doting daughter (Meggie Geisland), decides to write a novel. An earthy agent (Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy, now delightfully unsqueaky) signs him. The book becomes a best-seller, and thus begins the trouble.
Christmas movies have a deep disdain for success. Solidly middle-class — fine. Rolling in dough, top of your game — no, sir. As soon as Lowe gets a taste of the Grisham life, he naturally becomes a jerk. Not a whores-and-cocaine jerk, of course, just a kinda-sorta jerk. He spends only a few minutes with his wife’s elderly aunt Denise at a book signing. (Too self-involved, check.) He misses his daughter’s dance recital. (Neglecting the family, check.) He drops his agent and yells things like ”This is business!” (A bit too ambitious, check.) He misses Aunt Denise’s funeral. (Really neglecting the family, check.) He wants a nicer house. (Hates leaky roofs — check and mate!) Is this guy ever in need of a life lesson!
But wait, is this guy in need of a life lesson? During the tiny window of Harlan’s book tour, he makes some chilly choices, and does a few unnice things, but he’s more hapless than hateful. Ebenezer Scrooge recommended that paupers die to ”decrease the surplus population.” This milquetoast cable movie doesn’t have the guts to make its protagonist dislikable enough to deserve a lesson — and Lowe, stoic and sincere, never evinces any real glee in his success. (Now Paget Brewster, who makes her dutiful-wife role crackle, she’s someone you want to watch.)
Based on Richard Paul Evans’ book, Perfect Day also ungracefully deploys the ”old angel” archetype. Back to the Future’s Christopher Lloyd swoops in and out, making cryptic comments, knowing unknowable things, and then predicting that Harlan will die on Christmas. Lloyd’s mysterious figure is not particularly useful: He chides Harlan for being a jackass, but so does everyone else, and when he gives the fateful death sentence, his only advice is that Harlan ready himself for the Great Beyond. Come on, no open grave, no scenes of might-have-been? No, because Perfect Day wraps up with perhaps the most ludicrous twist ending ever captured on screen. The last 15 minutes turn into bad-Mamet-meets-figgy-pudding. Both are to be avoided in this season of joy.