It's Thanksgiving Day and April Burns (Katie Holmes) has invited her estranged family in from suburban Pennsylvania to her tiny Manhattan apartment for holiday dinner. April shares the flat with her boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) a generous partner with sloppy taste in friends. Her parents Jim and Joy (Oliver Platt and Patricia Clarkson) and siblings Beth and Timmy (Alison Pill and John Gallagher Jr.) are less than thrilled about the idea, having given up on April and her new piercing/tattoo/boyfriend lifestyle a long time ago. But Joy is in the advanced stages of a terminal illness. Without saying it too loudly, the family knows that if Mom and April don't at least try to reconcile, later may be too late. Everyone piles into a station wagon and off they go.
This makes Pieces of April sound like an antipodal Home For the Holidays (a 1995 middling comedy where normal old Holly Hunter visits her nutty family), but in tone it more closely resembles The Daytrippers, a wisp of a film about a family yanking at each other's leashes during a daylong car trip into Manhattan. While the Burns' make their way cityward, both avoiding talk of Joy's illness and stopping the car so she can throw up, April's stove has broken down and must bang on every door in her building in order to get the turkey prepared. Her neighbors are a colorful, contrived lot: a seemingly nice guy with a house full of wild cats, a stuffy yuppie with a rat dog and a new stove (Will & Grace's Sean Hayes) and a sympathetic African-American couple who help April make real cranberry sauce instead of from the can.
Pieces of April's charms come straight from the parts bin of the 1990s independent film movement, muted colors, a wry soundtrack, an emphasis on character over a neatly tied-up plot. Look away too fast and you might think you're at a screening of Chuck & Buck, Heavy, or Blue Car. And yet the best of these movies do not mistake their whimsy for substance or let their screenplays erode into a series of anecdotes.
Pieces of April sadly does both. While Hedges has assembled a blue-ribbon cast (Clarkson, Platt, and Luke are a dream team for a film of this size), his script leaves them standing around, limply holding their one-note assignments. Platt is Suffering Dad, Luke is Loyal Boyfriend. Clarkson does what she can with Joy's illness but the screenplay yanks it from her hands and races it to a forced conclusion. Luke's entire story (a search for a suit that ends in a standoff with April's ex) could be removed, with no losses suffered.
Holmes only fairs a little better. She makes April into a complete character, despite the rote task of a dozen scenes spent looking for an oven, and shows that giving her first leading film role was not a mistake. Choosing a small anecdotal film like this tells me she's planning an-indy centric career like Christina Ricci instead of a WB-writ-large presence like Jessica Biel. But in the end, the real heart of this movie sits of to its edges. The scenes of April relying on the kindness of strangers and Bobby are little gems. The overhang of her family and their reunion just gets in the way, which makes Pieces of April feel less like a movie and more like a series of moments in search of one.
The April DVD adds a commentary track from Hedges and a short making-of featurette.
Run time: 80 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 19th February 2004
Box Office USA: $2.3M
Budget: $300 thousand
Distributed by: United Artists
Production compaines: Kalkaska Productions
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 84%
Fresh: 124 Rotten: 23
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Peter Hedges
Producer: Alexis Alexanian
Screenwriter: Peter Hedges
Starring: Katie Holmes as April, Derek Luke as Bobby, Patricia Clarkson as Joy Burns, Oliver Platt as Jim Burns, Alison Pill as Beth Burns, John Gallagher Jr. as Timmy Burns, Alice Drummond as Grandma Dottie, Lillias White as Evette, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as Eugene
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