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Pieces of April

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-turned-moviemaker Peter Hedges (who adapted his own novel into the script for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and Nick Hornby’s book into “About a Boy”) is not on his game in “Pieces of April,” a tepid Thanksgiving-themed tearjerker that plays like a character study without any interesting characters.  Selecting an overworked and unoriginal concept – the dysfunctional family reunion on Turkey Day – Hedges pours on the clichés like so much gravy, and the result is an undercooked mess that fails to satisfy any intelligent moviegoer’s appetite.

As the titular April Burns, the black sheep of her family, too-beautiful-for-words Katie Holmes struggles to play against her good girl type by plastering on the eyeliner, pulling on the clunky boots, and sporting multiple piercings and neck tattoos.  Desperate to impress her dying mother with a homemade feast, April’s frantic preparations are intercut with the tragi-comic road trip of her family (far too reminiscent of Greg Mottola’s “The Daytrippers”) as they slowly but surely make their way from the suburbs to April’s disastrous Lower East Side apartment.  While cancer-stricken Joy (Patricia Clarkson, great as always) fights fatigue and nausea, patriarch Jim (Oliver Platt) struggles to put on a brave face.  Also in tow are senile Grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond), space cadet son Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.) and bitter daughter Beth (Alison Pill).

Hedges spends the majority of the movie’s brief running time simultaneously sketching the details of Joy’s illness and depicting April’s farcical readying of the dinner, but surprisingly, he manages to skip out on dealing in any meaningful way with the animosity directed from mother to daughter.  The audience comes to understand that April has made a mess of her life, but depth and resonance are frustratingly absent.  Instead, the director throws in a feeble subplot involving April’s boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) as he attends to some obscure “errands” that, by all unfortunate appearances, hint at the possibility of a drug deal.

Shot on consumer-grade digital video, “Pieces of April” looks totally terrible on the big screen.  Some proponents of the still unproven format might argue that videographer Tami Reiker handles the electronically-generated images with artistic attentiveness, but the flat, grainy, washed-out palette reveals no sense of dimensional space, and the picture constantly appears as it if it straining to shift into sharp focus.  The portability of Mini-DV also seems to invite handheld shooting, and April’s ceaseless running up and down the stairs of her building frequently results in an addled, groggy, headache-inducing ride.

Certainly, Holmes continues to prove that she has the talent to match her looks, but as a character, April is too flimsy and one-dimensional to be taken seriously.  The deepest characterizations belong to Clarkson, who manages to get plenty of mileage out of the rage and confusion attending the knowledge that this will likely be her last Thanksgiving, and Platt, who nails the kind of helpless cheerfulness that is required of people in his dire situation.  “Pieces of April” tries a little bit too hard to straddle the fence that divides poignant weepy from quirky comedy, and the utterly predictable ending is as hard to swallow as the canned cranberry sauce that ends up in April’s garbage can.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/22/03. 

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