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'Pieces' that form a satisfying whole

October 17, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Once there was this one day," a struggling April says, trying to explain Thanksgiving to a family of immigrant Chinese, "where everyone seemed to know they needed each other. This one day when they knew for certain they couldn't do it alone."

At least that's the idea, the Hallmark card notion of a holiday when stresses fall away and love reigns supreme. Instead, as films delight in pointing out, Thanksgiving and even Christmas are times when families are just as likely to come together as fall apart or, even worse, fall on one another's throats.

The winning "Pieces of April" details the makings of one of these seriocomic holidays from hell, but it is far from a standard brand. It may make use of familiar farcical situations, but it turns out to be an especially warm comedy with a hidden heart. It's a film whose humor has feeling behind it because writer-director Peter Hedges doesn't let his comedy overpower an understanding of how emotionally weighted family situations are always going to be.

Shot fast and inexpensively on digital video, this is the first directing to be done by Hedges, who adapted his novel "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" for the screen and was nominated for an Oscar for his "About a Boy" screenplay. Determined, he said at the film's debut in Sundance, "not to take shortcuts with people," Hedges demonstrates both an eye for believably eccentric characters and the ability to cast and work with actors who make them involving individuals.

Every Thanksgiving celebration involves two groups of people: the hosts and the guests. "Pieces of April" starts at 7 o'clock on the holiday morning and cuts back and forth between the preparers in Lower Manhattan and the visitors from deep in suburbia, two groups that don't lack for comic adventures.

Only it's more complicated than that. Twenty-one-year-old daughter April (Katie Holmes) is doing something she hates for Joy (Patricia Clarkson), the badly misnamed mother she despises, and Joy is battling discomfort to visit someone she'd do anything to avoid. The reason is the same on both sides: Joy, though only 42, is dying of cancer. And she is not going quietly.

Living on the Lower East Side with the tattoos, black fingernails and two-tone hair to prove she belongs there, edgy April is an unlikely person to have invited her entire family to her home for Thanksgiving. Not only does she have a mutual hostility society going on with her mother, but April can't even peel a potato, has probably never seen an uncooked turkey, and uses her stove exclusively as a storage area.

April's sweet-natured boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke, cast before his breakthrough "Antwone Fisher" role), helps as much as he can before he takes off on a mysterious errand we get to tag along on. April tells him not to worry, she'll be OK. She's wrong.

For it turns out that the never-used oven, perhaps resentful at being neglected, does not work. Like a seeker after alms for the poor, April is forced to go from door to door through her apartment building, wailing, "Doesn't anyone have a stove I can use?"

The people she meets on this forced pilgrimage, ranging from that Chinese family to a tart African American couple (Lillias White and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) to a really fussy man with a really modern oven ("Will & Grace's" Sean Hayes) provide the difficulties as well as the comedy of April's day.

Holmes is front and center in this part of the picture, and she carries it easily. Looking in her long braids like a punk Pippi Longstocking, Holmes has no trouble making this exasperated, anxious individual someone we are both concerned about and amused by.

Her family, mainly occupied by driving in from far away, is also expertly cast: caring father Jim (Oliver Platt), goody two-shoes daughter Beth (Alison Pill), spacey photographer brother Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.), even spacier grandmother Dottie (Alice Drummond) and, last but most important, mother Joy (Clarkson).

If April is wary, conflicted, not given to trust, meeting Joy shows us exactly where that comes from. In some ways, the two women probably became antagonistic because they were so much alike, and Joy's illness has given her so much more of a malevolent, take-no-prisoners attitude that even her own mother asks, "Who are you?"

This is one of the roles ("Station Agent" was another) that got the suddenly blossoming Clarkson her well-deserved best actress award at Sundance earlier this year. Her Joy is an all-too-real nightmare, someone who takes malicious pleasure in saying whatever it takes to cause trouble and discomfort those around her. This is rather a daring part to have written into a film whose core is the opposite of mean-spirited, but without the skill and complete integrity Clarkson brings to it, "Pieces of April" would never have succeeded.

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