[Screen It]


(2003) (Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson) (PG-13)

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Drama/Comedy: With their terminally ill mother in tow, a family sets off to have Thanksgiving with their estranged daughter who's trying to get her life back on track.
April Burns (KATIE HOLMES) is a young woman trying to get her life back on track. One way of doing that is by making amends with her younger siblings, Beth (ALISON PILL) and Timmy (JOHN GALLAGHER, JR.), dad Jim (OLIVER PLATT) and especially her mom, Joy (PATRICIA CLARKSON). Accordingly, she's invited all of them to her Lower East Side apartment for Thanksgiving.

April's live-in boyfriend, Bobby (DEREK LUKE), thinks it's a great idea and asks her if she needs help preparing the feast. She says no and he heads off to meet an associate, Latrell (SISQO), for some initially undisclosed reason.

It's only then that April discovers that their oven no longer works. Frantic to get the turkey cooked, she visits various neighbors including Wayne (SEAN HAYES), an oddball type with a new oven, and Eugene (ISIAH WHITLOCK, JR.) and Evette (LILLIAS WHITE) who help her out, but can only give her bird half the time it needs.

With her family en route with Grandma Dottie (ALICE DRUMMOND), and everyone trying to cope with Joy's terminal illness, April races to get everything ready before they arrive.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
After years of having their parents care for and tend to them, it's only inevitable, not to mention right, for kids to do the same for them later on in life. Of course, that often occurs in a baby-step fashion, usually via hosting a traditional event at the offspring's home in a passing of the torch sort of ritual.

With the now adult child trying to replicate and/or emulate what they grew up with, and the parents trying to bite their tongues and let their fledglings fly on their own, the stage is usually set for any number of comedic and/or dramatic occurrences to arise.

Writer/director Peter Hedges (making his directorial debut after penning "About a Boy" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape") hopes to showcase just that in "Pieces of April," a familial dramedy. The stakes are set a bit higher than normal in this offering, however, as a dying mother and her family set off for Thanksgiving with the bad-seed daughter.

April doesn't try to kill them or anything - although that could have made for an interesting black comedy - but rather wants to make everything just right as something of a peace token as combined with a bit of demonstrable self-efficiency.

Of course, she hasn't told them that she lives in a less than upscale part of town with her black boyfriend. Not surprisingly, she has her work cut out for her in trying to make things just right. To complicate matters, Hedges tosses in a huge monkey (or is it turkey) wrench into April's plans and path.

It turns out her oven doesn't work and she thus spends much of the movie trying to find a neighbor - none of whom she's ever met - who will let her cook her bird in theirs. Thus, Hedges has constructed the film with two halves - one showcasing her trials and tribulations, the other following her family en route - that are obviously destined to collide somewhere at or near the end.

While April - nicely played by Katie Holmes ("Abandon," "Phone Booth") - races around to get the festivities in order, her boyfriend - the terrific Derek Luke ("Biker Boyz," "Antwone Fisher") - is out on a nebulous mission of his own.

Meanwhile, her family -- Patricia Clarkson ("Far From Heaven," "Welcome to Collinwood") and Oliver Platt ("Bicentennial Man," "Lake Placid") as the parents and Alison Pill (various TV movies) and John Gallagher, Jr. (making his feature debut) as the younger siblings - is making the drive, all while dealing with the inevitability of the mother's fate and the knowledge that April can't cook to save her own life.

Likely to remind viewers of other family get-together holiday flicks such as "Home For The Holidays," the film is a small and low-budget affair shot on digital video. Hedges doesn't try to do anything terribly grand or moving with the material, but does do a decent job of mixing the drama and comedy, without overdoing either.

For the most part, that works, but the film never escapes its undersized air. It also feels long despite a relatively short runtime of around 80 minutes. The fact that nothing of great consequence occurs doesn't help matters. That includes the predictable conclusion that isn't as poignant or heartfelt as I was expecting but wraps things up too quickly and easily.

Save for Sean Hayes (TV's "Will & Grace") who goes a bit too far over the top in weirdness with his strange neighbor character, the performances are generally good. Holmes eschews any sort of glamorous look in exchange for a gritty demeanor and pulls it off. Luke is good as her live-in boyfriend, but is on his own for too much of the film (in something of a red herring role, but without a decent enough payoff for the setup).

Clarkson plays the terminally ill mother with just the right touch of pathos, shock, guilt and humor, while Platt is solid as her on the edge of a breakdown husband. The rest of the roles, including that from Sisqo ("Snow Dogs," "Get Over It") as Bobby's associate, Alice Drummond ("Joe Gould's Secret," "In & Out") as the grandmother along for the ride and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. ("25th Hour," "The Spanish Prisoner") and Lillias White ("How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "Gloria") as helpful neighbors, are small but good.

While competently executed in front of and behind the camera, the film can't shake the feeling that it's just missing that extra something special to make it stand out or be more memorable. "Piece of April" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 19, 2003 / Posted October 24, 2003

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