Pieces of April

In “Pieces of April,” April Burns (Holmes, who also starred in “The Gift”) is a New York bohemian living with her struggling boyfriend (Derek Luke, “Antwone Fisher”), and spending the day preparing a Thanksgiving feast for her estranged family. Not having much luck with her oven, April frantically searches for another apartment to cook her meal in, leading to unexpected results. Her family, including mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson) and father Jim (Oliver Platt), are packed in a car on their way to the big city, stopping every so often to deal with Joy’s cancer treatment exhaustion, along with the family’s general apprehension in seeing April again.

“Pieces Of April” embodies the tiresome side of independent filmmaking. Through its digital video camera lens we see a collection of cartoonish characters, a boring New York location, and a sitcomish screenplay that doesn’t have a focal point. “April” is a blessedly short (80 minutes) and simple character piece exploring the degenerative aftermath of a dysfunctional family trying to keep straight faces as they gather for the holiday season. The entire film is split between April’s odyssey to get her turkey cooked, and her family’s long ordeal driving up to April’s New York City apartment.

April’s side of the plot is where most of the success is found in the movie. While writer/director Peter Hedges teeters on that oh so precious “only in New York” vibe to the apartment complex microcosm, he does manage a loving portrayal of the many denizens of the building, and how some refuse April, and others are willing to help her. Comedy is provided by April’s lousy attempts to cook the dinner, working from box-top recipes and her own foggy memory of how a meal like this is prepared. Interspersed between the chunky mashed potatoes and canned cranberries are glimpses of the emotional damage that has been inflicted on April, swelling the film’s anticipation of what’s going to happen when the two sides meet.

The other half of the film is trapped in a car with the Burns clan, and it’s a pretty awkward journey. If a car ride with a dysfunctional family seems familiar to you, that’s because “April” comes uncomfortably close to Greg Mottola’s “The Daytrippers,” which was essentially the same concept – without the turkey and the stuffing. Whereas “Daytrippers” was a funny and a moving experience, “April” is a misfire, playing around with wildly diverging dramatic tones that never come together. There’s nothing wrong with trying to merge pathos with comedy, but Hedges can never find an equal weight in either side, resulting in an clumsy treatment of Joy’s attitude about her cancer, and a deeply tedious, sitcom-like appearance to the Burns’ travels.

The film’s main theme is the sense of obligation on both parties’ behalf when it comes to this dinner. Hedges doesn’t suitably pay this off, choosing subtle imagery over a true closure to the film. The ending is the very definition of the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I would’ve liked those thousand words placed back into the film.

Rating: D+