- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

The holiday season is hard upon us, and with it, inevitably, comes holiday movies. “Pieces of April,” a Thanksgiving charmer, is understuffed, undercooked and unsatisfying — until the end, or dessert, a small dollop of sweetness.

Former “Dawson’s Creek” TV starlet Katie Holmes plays the eponymous April, a wayward punkette in pigtails and Goth makeup.

Living in a gritty downtown Manhattan apartment with a black boyfriend (Derek Luke of “Antwone Fisher”), she’s the girl-gone-bad of the Burns family, a clan of suburbanites trekking into the city for what could be their last Thanksgiving together: The mother, Joy (Patricia Clarkson), is dying of cancer.

Now, besides her edgy fashion sense, April is not a bad girl; she’s no cook, as the movie makes comically clear, but no criminal, either.

Boyfriend Bobby is the picture of politeness and attentiveness; the fact that he’s black gives writer-director Peter Hedges a pretext for a bizarre subplot in which the young man runs a mysterious errand that smells suspiciously like a drug deal.

I’ll leave it to you, sensitive reader, to decide whether the implication is beyond the bounds of racial good taste.

There they are, in their dank apartment in an ethnic neighborhood, and here come the white-flighters back into town, with their station wagon and dotty Grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond).

The comedy of “April” turns on two converging axes: April, as she frantically prepares a Thanksgiving meal, and the rest of the Burns clan as they make their way down the turnpike, with little elbow room and lots of ill humor.

April’s stove won’t light, so she’s forced to troop up and down her building in search of a functioning one. A kindly black couple gets her turkey started but have a bird of their own to cook.

She’s turned away by a vegan nut case and then an obsessively high-strung loon in preppy duds (Sean Hayes). A Chinese family seems receptive, but there’s a language barrier.

Meanwhile, the traveling Burnses must deal with the prickly, reluctant Joy. Dealing with successive vomiting fits — and finding relief only in her son Timmy’s (John Gallagher) marijuana joints — Joy has become embittered by her illness, often taking out her frustrations on her eager-to-please daughter, Beth (Alison Pills).

The Burnses’ plump patriarch, Jim (Oliver Platt), wants nothing more than to keep the peace and ensure, come high water, that the reunion with April comes off.

The humor in April’s environs is flat and forced. Watching her fumble with food and cooking implements is mildly funny, but I can do that in my own underutilized kitchen. Her entreaties to borrow a working stove are good for light chuckles but hardly adequate to sustain an entire movie.

Things are more interesting in the Burns station wagon. The family dynamic feels real and poignant; Miss Clarkson nails Joy’s battle with physical pain and deterioration and emotional fatalism. Who are we to judge her cynicism unless we walk a mile in her shoes?

“April” is a low-budget and low-maintenance family comedy. Shot on digital video, it aims for realism and struggles mightily to avoid formula. It has at least the look of something different.

Even if it delivers a lump in the throat in the end, the movie is as short on laughs as it is on running time.

**

TITLE: “Pieces of April”

RATING: PG-13 (Profanity; sensuality; medicinal drug use; images of nudity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Peter Hedges. Produced by Alexis Alexanian, John S. Lyons and Gary Winick. Cinematography by Tami Reicker. Original music by Stephin Merritt.

RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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