DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
PIECES OF APRIL (director/writer: Peter Hedges; cinematographer: Tami Reiker; editor: Mark Livolsi ; music: Stephin Merritt; cast: Katie Holmes (April Burns), Patricia Clarkson (Joy Burns), Derek Luke (Bobby), Alison Pill (Beth Burns), John Gallagher Jr. (Timmy Burns), Alice Drummond (Grandma Dottie), Sean Hayes (Wayne), Oliver Platt (Jim Burns), Lillias White (Evette), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Eugene), Armando Riesco (Tyrone/Eddie), Sisqo (Latrell), Susan Bruce (Tish); Runtime: 81; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: John Lyons/Alexis Alexanian/ Gary Winick; MGM; 2003)

 
"Everything worked out a little too neatly for this farce to convince as drama."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A syrupy Thanksgiving-reunion movie that updates "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," as it retains the same wishy-washy racial thematic formula of a forced plea for tolerance in how to relate to interracial romances. Everything worked out a little too neatly for this farce to convince as drama. But as sitcom comedy it does its job good enough, managing not to ruffle too many feathers while saying a little something on the subject but not enough to offend or pack any weight. Writer-director Peter Hedges (screenwriter for "About a Boy" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape"), in his directorial debut, shoots for playing the race card without playing it hard and dirty, as the race card is always there as the kicker in case everything else fails. What pulls this message film together is the fine comedic performances of the ensemble cast, especially by Katie Holmes as the scattered ditsy who shows her mettle by her determination to get out a Thanksgiving meal no matter the problem. Patricia Clarkson startles in a huffy way when she unexpectedly laces her self-pitying role with combative comedy. While Oliver Platt just has the right sort of overweight look for his nice-guy schlemiel part that moves warily into soap opera melodrama.

This small-budget indie (shot for about $200,000 in three weeks) proved to be a real crowd-pleaser at Sundance, as it offers a look at a day in the life of a splintered nuclear family striving to create better memories than the old ones.

Trendy body-pierced April Burns (Katie Holmes) lives with her slacker black boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) in a dumpy walk-up tenement in New York City's Lower East Side slum, as she has been estranged from her New Jersey suburban family for awhile and is considered the family's black sheep. Though a poor homemaker, she decides to invite her family for a Thanksgiving meal as a peace offering. Her reasons are ambivalent -- there's one part of her that wants to get back at them and shock them at where she lives and with whom, while another part is hopeful of a reconciliation and coming to terms with all the hurts she felt she received growing up. 

The visiting Burns family consists of mom ironically named Joy (Patricia Clarkson), who is zombie-like and sharp-tongued and is depressed over her terminal cancer; the easy-going conciliatory father Jim (Oliver Platt); the camera buff and pothead Tim (Gallagher Jr.), the goody-goody momma's girl Beth (Pill ), and the appropriately named Dottie (Drummond), the dotty but alert when she wants to be Grandma picked up in her nursing home.

Hedges swings back and forth in scenes between the bickering family taking the long virulent drive down the New Jersey Turnpike and Katie finding all sorts of trouble in her first cooking attempt. The riders must stop often for mom to either vomit out the junk food consumed or vent at how she has no pleasant memories of her eldest child April or they must stop to bury their roadkill of a squirrel or act as unwanted cheerleaders for Joy. Katie gets stuck when her oven breaks and she can't get a repairman at this late date. She's forced to appeal to her diverse neighbors who, until this point, have been strangers. She's left home alone while Bobby is roaming the streets on his scooter to come up with a thrift store dinner suit and wonder about a mysterious meeting called for by someone he claims he doesn't know by the name of Tyrone. 

Things get sitcom cutesy and TV friendly as Katie makes her way through the gloomy hallway and finds some neighbors who help and others who don't have the holiday spirit. The elderly African-American couple, who are preparing a gourmet treat, after an initial racial slur help with the homemade cranberry and some cooking tips; a non-English speaking Chinese family helps by cooking the turkey in their oven and are rewarded with a lesson from dummy Katie on the Thanksgiving holiday. A bitchy dog lover named Wayne, with a modern new stove, helps, but changes his effeminate mind when he doesn't know what he's getting out of this deal. While Nader supporter and vegan Tish, turns Katie away saying she can't deal with meat in her oven. All the characters are there for some local color and to drive home the Thanksgiving message of everyone needing each other, which is related to the Pilgrims' needing the Native Americans. In this film it is no accident that those sharing are of color, while the whites are seen as uptight. Message being for whitey to stop being so uppity and get down with the program, though perhaps not as far down as Katie. Where Hedges is going with the collision course between the stressed suburbans and their outcast daughter, can be too easily predicted by all the contrivances leading up to the conclusion. The final happy scene to ease all the previous sourness unloaded, which incidentally fueled the film with energy and made it worth seeing, seems to be unwarranted and smacks of sitcom pap. But what cooked well were all the set-piece comic antics, as Holmes, Clarkson, Platt, and company did not miss a single cue in stuffing this turkey.

REVIEWED ON 11/11/2003     GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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