When going gets tough, April gets cooking

`Pieces' knows how to unite a family

October 31, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Pieces of April has a shred of originality that keeps its humor prickly and its drama sharp for an hour and 21 minutes.

It's the Thanksgiving Day fable of a bohemian New York City girl named April (Katie Holmes) and her attempt to cook a turkey for her suburban family in her grungy Lower East Side digs. April has never gotten along with her mother (Patricia Clarkson), who happens to be riddled with cancer -- a fact that might have made the whole movie mawkish and sickly sweet.

Luckily, Clarkson and writer-director Peter Hedges have the wit to create a thorny, sometimes harshly playful character who is full of surprises, whether telling her smug "good" daughter (Alison Pill) to shut up or suddenly riding off with her son (John Gallagher Jr.) and a couple of bikers.

The engine that powers the movie is its beat-the-clock plot. When April discovers that her oven has broken down, she must roam through her apartment house begging favors from neighbors she's never met, hoping to get her table set and her bird cooked before her father (Oliver Platt) wheels the folks into Manhattan. Hedges has the humorous insight to present what heavy-breathing filmmakers call a "dysfunctional family" as a normal household.

Sometimes, their tics seem too self-conscious -- such as the son's insistence on giving roadkill a proper burial. But they serve Hedges' purpose of dramatizing that families are made of wildly different individuals who happen to share the same roof and, on occasion, are able to get over themselves and act as if they also share the same flesh and blood. Platt is crucial to this concept; his embodiment of a grounded, pliant empathy proves as critical to the film's success as Clarkson's out-on-a-limb inventiveness.

And Hedges is shrewd enough to apply the same clear-eyed comedic gaze on the characters who aren't April's family: her erratic building mates. They include Will and Grace's Sean Hayes as a prissy pug-loving bachelor who will complete a favor only if treated with regal deference. I'm not sure the forgetful grandmother adds much to the mix, but a subplot involving April's loving black boyfriend (well-played by Derek Luke) provides the final twist that makes everything click into place.

Holmes' touchingly inchoate expressions often mingle petulance and yearning. They're perfect for April -- and for the movie's ending, which celebrates not a full-blown family rapprochement, but a simple moment of communion. The highest compliment I can pay Pieces of April is that it brings to mind a Paul Simon lyric: "the mother and child reunion is only a motion away."

Pieces of April

Starring Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson and Oliver Platt

Directed by Peter Hedges

Rated PG-13

Released by MGM/UA

Time 81 minutes

Sun Score ***

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