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Lacking in sustenance

Thanksgiving-themed Pieces of April is a turkey


Despite its grungy Lower East Side setting and Katie Holmes decked out in punk rock-meets-Pippi Longstocking attire, Pieces of April feels ready for the insertion of canned laughter and a sitcom slot in network prime-time.

Peter Hedges, screenwriter for the wonderful About a Boy and What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, wrote and directed this misfire about a boho black sheep trying to reintegrate into the family fold.

April (Holmes) is the prodigal daughter who's performed a gesture of goodwill by inviting her whole family to her grotty Manhattan apartment for Thanksgiving. April must spend her Thanksgiving of comeuppance suffering numerous tribulations in order to earn her family's acceptance.

Each character in Pieces of April is given a token shtick -- akin to a straitjacket -- to work within. April's teenage sister Beth (Alison Pill) is a goody two-shoes whose dialogue sounds like a pert, crisply enunciated valedictorian's address. Her archetypal pothead brother Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) is a cynic with a camera perpetually attached to his eyeball, documenting the family fracas. Dad (Oliver Platt) is a lovable dork who wonders why everyone just can't get along.

But it is mom, Joy (Patricia Clarkson), who is the sole example of a compelling human presence. Far from some apron-stringed, emasculated fiction, this mom is revisionist and one mean mutha to boot.

Joy has good reason to be downbeat. She's dying of cancer, and the reunion with April is a chance for a last bid at family solidarity. With eerie echoes of National Lampoon's Vacation, the family drive from their suburban home to Manhattan, stopping along the way for Joy to puke in gas station bathrooms and pick up a senile grandmother from the rest home. The film cuts between the tense family dynamics unfolding in the car and April's frantic efforts to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner. Solo. Without a functioning stove. The film derives great yuks from April's hackery in the kitchen -- stuffing the turkey cavity with a whole onion and "making" cranberry sauce by opening a can to unleash the gelatinous goo in a culinary comedy of errors a la Lucy Ricardo.

Desperately banging on doors to commandeer an available oven, April meets her neighbors for the first time. They are, in keeping with the fluffy tone of the drama, the usual motley crew of New York kooks, including a feminist, tree-hugging vegan and a no-speak-English gaggle of Chinese immigrants crammed into a tiny apartment. Though the relationship between April and her parents is strained, the presence of so many neighbors locked behind closed doors and alone on Thanksgiving makes the very idea of family, no matter how deranged, seem like a lifeboat in a sea of loneliness.

Without a doubt, Pieces of April's ace in the hole is Clarkson, current queen of the indie scene and the only actress post-Parker Posey apparently authorized to express cutting cynicism and acid-dipped bon mots.

But Hedges' constant, annoying jokiness suggests a director ultimately uncomfortable plumbing the real pain and heartache in his characters' lives, which he then tries to cram into the film's disingenuous final 10 minutes.

On one positive note, Hedges' choice to shoot the film on digital video proves a good one. The shocking image of the eviscerated Thanksgiving turkey, the steely grays of a wintry New York and the griminess of April's apartment building corridors register well in DV's depressing pink and gray tones.

The characters and the parallel storylines keep things deceptively busy, like tires spinning but going nowhere. The gags are meringue light and the situations contrived. In a moment that could have been sponsored by Krispy Kreme, the family load up on doughnuts in anticipation of April's cooking, while Joy coos, "There is a God." That a woman contemplating the End can only find spiritual sustenance in fried dough is the least of this film's problems.

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