Hallmark Hall of Fame-style tear-jerkers are my wife's bag, but For One More Day stars Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos) and is an Oprah Winfrey Presentation, so I figured I might be able to please two people at once - something so rare in my marriage. We hit the mark, finding a tale that presents engaging challenges, top-notch performances and sentimentality that's more gritty than mawkish. Yeah, it even has that part that jabs you in the throat, making even the toughest guys get a bit choked-up.
Choking up is something Chick Benetto (Imperioli) does one or two times in life. First as a flash-in-the-pan Major League baseball player with a pretty good bat, and second as an alcoholic has-been who's estranged from his family. Growing up with a fiercely nurturing mother who wants the best education for her son, and a gruff, detached father who wants his son to become a successful ball player, Chick is torn. When his dad's dream for Chick is snapped by a career-ending injury, he turns to the bottle and a series of dead-end sales jobs, winding up alone and suicidal. Things are at their darkest, but Chick is granted one more day with his deceased mother, who shows him the life he has had through her eyes, and points the way to salvation.
A fractured narrative gradually mends as For One More Day unfolds, at first disorienting before ultimately soothing viewers. Benetto's drunken pursuit of death criss-crosses hectically with scenes from his life, as if that journey were already flashing before his eyes. It takes a good fifteen minutes before rhythm and rhyme become established, allowing viewers finally to relax away from grappling with events, letting the story settle in like muddied waters calming. This challenging opening salvo, with its sensationalistic happenings, grips the viewer with hooks that won't let go, even as the story heads into more familiar memoir-style territory. Yet throughout, that edge of unease, in the form of eerie echoing noises and voices, keeps viewers on edge with hints of dark outcomes.
Imperioli and Ellen Burstyn (as Chick's mom Posey) provide firm anchoring, with a pair of strong performances that belie the movie's television origins. There's never been a question of either performer's abilities, but many wonder if Imperioli can escape the shadow of his Sopranos alter ego Christopher Molitsanti. The answer is a resounding yes and no. The face and voice will never change, and they'll always be associated with the role that made them famous. That said, viewers will never confuse Chick with Christopher; Imperioli gives his all to Benetto, infusing the character with world-weary, resigned despair that's both moving and true to the life of the wounded character. Burstyn's ghost-mother is naturalistic, bringing matter-of-fact mothering to the afterlife in a fashion that saves the show from potential bathos. Her costume is awful, but otherwise she's a perfect fit. The surprises are Imperioli's son Vadim as the young Chick, and Samantha Mathis as young Posey Benetto. Mathis evokes Ellen Barkin's fiery character in This Boy's Life, while young Imperioli's lost but eager-to-please Chick is at times heartbreaking.
Life-threatening trauma, alcoholic desperation and baseball are three ingredients with the power to elevate any tear-jerking drama to superior status. With such tools, a haunting, challenging narrative and uniformly excellent performances, For One More Day surpasses expectations of rote sentimentality. It's probably why I got more choked up than my wife, a gal who's a sucker for any terminal-illness-based movie of the week. Director Lloyd Kramer, Imperioli, Burstyn and hell, even Oprah, have reason to be proud.