Pieces of April
starring Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt
4 stars

review by Stephen Notley

Gosh, this is a quirky one. It's no surprise, really, since Pieces of April comes from the writer of What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, another story strong in annoying family interactions and vaguely repellent family members. Too heavy and non-hilarious to be a comedy, but too oddball and off-kilter to be a drama Pieces of April, if anything, comes off like an episode of Six Feet Under.

Here's the premise: slovenly Katie Holmes has invited her family --weak-looking dad Oliver Platt, I'm-a-bitch-because-I'm-dying-of-cancer mom Patricia Clarkson, bitchy superperfect sister Alison Pill, goober camera-slugging brother Timmy and gramma-- to come to her barely functional Lower East Side apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. So we've got two basic plot threads: Katie stumbling around trying to put dinner together while the rest of the family snarks and bitches at each other during the long drive to the city.

Basically this movie is a character portrait, a fistful of weirdo people to consider. Pieces of April is a movie not afraid to have its characters be "unlikable"; in that it's a lot like movie-full-of-assholes Igby Goes Down. Want to spend and hour and a half with a bunch of characters who set your teeth on edge? Maybe, maybe not. The trick for the filmmaker is to make the shape and form of everybody's jerkery so interesting you're willing to put up with what jerks they all are.

Take Katie herself, doing just a really piss-poor job of getting her shit together to create a turkey dinner for her family. Jeez, just watching her slug that turkey around in her nasty sink, making the shittiest of shitty stuffing, her utterly retarded efforts towards mashing potatoes… it creates feelings of physical distaste towards her. Once the oven breaks down she's forced on a quest throughout the apartment building for help, so we can't help feel a little sympathy for her, but man, she really is a mostly-hopeless screw-up.

Swinging over to the family car we have Patricia Clarkson as the mom, "Joy", which is pretty rich. For folks who caught dwarf-lives-in-train-depot movie The Station Agent, Patricia Clarkson was one of several revelations, brittle with loneliness. Here she's the opposite, hopped up on death, taking her impending exit as license to be completely rude and inappropriately goofy. "Family", she'll say, "We've needed to have this talk for a long time. We're going to have to decide what's going to happen, how we're going to handle… how we're going to handle… how we're going to handle the responsibility of discarding the food served to us by our hostess this afternoon." Or, after completing an aria Beth asks "Any requests?", Mom's answer is "That you stop." Nice. 

Sister Beth is something of a piece of work herself, having taken her "perfect daughter" act to such a rarified and artificial bitchiness you're just itching to murder her the whole time. The actress's name is Alison Pill, and in weirdo movie synchrony, that's exactly what Beth is: a pill.

Meanwhile, back in turkey-land, Katie runs afoul of Sean Hayes, who plays flaming gay guy Jack on Will and Grace and who seems to be popping up in comedy movies more often these days; he also had a supporting role in Cat in the Hat. His suspiciously perfect oven comes with flaming strings of weirdoness attached, and we are duly repelled.

A curious side thing about this film is that it's shot on slightly crappy digital video, which feels a bit off. Digital video works well for films like 28 Days Later, where the jerky immediacy of the video heightens the tension, but in Pieces of April that documentary-footage feel approach doesn't seem to jibe with the slightly stagey absurdity of the characters. Plus sometimes it just looks crappy. 

So that was bugging me, and these characters were bugging me, and I was wondering what I thought of this movie and didn't think it was that much, and then two minutes before the end the plot twitched and I was startled to discover I was actually touched. I hadn't thought I cared about these characters at all, but it turns out I did. With a simple, understated ending, Pieces of April makes it all worth it.