Movie review: 'Pieces of April'

3 stars (out of 4)

"Pieces of April," which marks the directorial debut of that often excellent writer Peter Hedges ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape?"), is a funny movie about a very sad subject: an impending death in a family splintered for years and now trying to come together.

In American films, the most honestly earned tears sometimes seep through a screen of cutting humor; this hipness shows the filmmakers and actors know the score and aren't suckers for sentiment. Patricia Clarkson gives that kind of performance here. As a suburban mother traveling to New York City for what will probably be her last reunion with her badly behaved daughter April (Katie Holmes), Clarkson snaps off her lines with a cynical flair and fragile grace, squeezing out tears and laughs with equal ease. Most of the time, the movie does the same.

Hedges shows us April's final-hour attempts to repair her damaged relationship with mother Joy, who's dying of cancer. It's dad Jim's idea to leave Joy with one warm memory after a lifetime of disappointments. Holmes and Oliver Platt, who plays Jim, are quite good, as is the rest of the cast. But Clarkson's performance goes further. One of the year's best, it has a crystal clarity over deep wells of emotion. The rest of the film is not up to her standard, but few films would be.

There are tears in "Pieces of April," but they come without manipulation. And the laughs that bubble up throughout are an antidote to anguish. Hedges shows frazzle-nerved April, who lives in East Village squalor with her gentle, streetwise boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke of "Antwone Fisher"), trying, in the midst of innumerable crises, to prepare a Thanksgiving turkey feast for her family. It's a daunting task for someone who lives in a world of drug deals and frozen pizza.

Complicating matters are Bobby's attempts to avoid street hassles and find suitable formal wear. Meanwhile, April's broken stove forces her to wander from one triple-locked apartment to another in search of a place to cook. She finds one genial couple (Lillias White and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who can offer half the cooking time, and one uptight, randy yuppie (Sean Hayes) who has exotic repayment in mind.

Meanwhile, the Burns family - sarcastic but radiant Joy, rumpled Jim, smug sis Beth (Alison Pill), woozy little brother Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) and sometimes-addled grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond) - speed by car from their home in upstate New York, bickering all the way.

"Pieces of April" is a realistic-nightmare domestic comedy in which we keep hoping things will eventually go right. April's turkey may be ravaged and her sexuality insulted, Bobby may be chased and beaten, and the Burns family may suffer bruising recollections and roadkill, but the movie itself keeps suggesting a Norman Rockwell painting slapped onto a tie-dyed T-shirt.

I didn't much like the way "April" looked; it's been photographed by rock video specialist Tami Reiker ("High Art") in a deliberately fuzzy, pseudo-doc style. But I have to admit that this apparent artlessness captures the special feel of Manhattan's bohemian sections. And the writing and performances glow. The actors savor their lines and moments - and they should.

Hedges has a playwright's feel for telling dialogue and the revealing scene. Whether showing us a roadside Krispy Kreme or a used-rags shop in the Village, he and his Altmanesque ensemble tell us much in a short time, and with such warmth and skill that nothing is bathetic or saccharine. They all misstep slightly at the climax, but in a movie that dwells so wittily and movingly on forgiveness, you have to grant pardon. Clarkson alone makes "April" a feast.

"Pieces of April"
Directed and written by Peter Hedges; photographed by Tami Reiker; edited by Mark Livolsi; production designed by Rick Butler; music by Stephin Merritt; produced by John Lyons, Gary Winick, Alexis Alexanian. A United Artists release; opens Friday, Oct. 24. Running time: 1:21. MPAA rating: PG-13 (language, sexuality, drug content and images of nudity).
April Burns - Katie Holmes
Joy Burns - Patricia Clarkson
Jim Burns - Oliver Platt
Bobby - Derek Luke
Beth Burns - Alison Pill
Timmy Burns - John Gallagher Jr.
Grandma Dottie -Alice Drummond

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