The Comfort of a Warm Movie

Pieces of April

Since seeing the charming, sweet, and smart Pieces of April a few days ago, I’ve been trying to figure out why it brought to mind the sadly underrated and under-seen Stuart Saves His Family.

Harold Ramis’ 1995 comedy was based on Al Franken’s tiresome and never-funny Stuart Smalley character from Saturday Night Live, and in enlarging Stuart’s world beyond the public-access studio, an amazing transformation happened: The movie became one of the best, most-affectionate, and most-accurate (if least-sober, so to speak) portraits of an alcoholic family ever committed to film.

Pieces of April, written and directed by Peter Hedges, is more drama than comedy, and the dysfunction it documents is milder, but it shares a few uncommon characteristics with Stuart: It has warmth toward its characters, avoids cheap sentiment, cherishes the small but significant moment, and has a genuine understanding of family dynamics. It also digs a tunnel straight to the heart, completely bypassing the brain, which is important because it’s creaky and doesn’t have a depth of character or emotion that you might hope for.

The movie stars Katie Holmes as ne’er-do-well April, long-estranged from her parents and two younger siblings. For reasons that aren’t ever made clear, April invites her suburban family to her ratty New York apartment for Thanksgiving dinner, and to meet her new boyfriend. Her stove breaks, and she’s forced to rely on the kindness of other tenants, cooking half the turkey (and getting some culinary lessons) in one apartment, having the bird held hostage by a neighbor who felt slighted, and finishing the job in someone else’s home. Meanwhile, the family makes the long drive to the big city, with occasional bickering and too much concern over the health of April’s sick mother (a wonderfully sharp Patricia Clarkson), who’s fed up with all the attention.

The movie is more snapshot than story; the characters don’t develop or change, and instead the audience simply gets to know them — and, most importantly, like them. Although April has stumbled many times in her life, she’s hell-bent on making a good meal for her family, and her determination to win their approval and do something right for a change is touching. Joy, April’s mother, is flinty but also vivacious and defiant. At one point on their journey, she begs her husband to stop the car, and her family is stricken. She tells them she has something ... very important ... to tell them ... then instructs them how to discretely dispose of food, and then collapses laughing.

The rest of the characters don’t have much to do. Oliver Platt is the husband because there has to be a husband; the daughter Beth exists as a foil to April and to give Joy pleasant memories that she desperately wants to have of her wayward April; and the son is around to provide pot and take pictures, because photographs and their power play a small but vital role in the narrative.

The brood also serves to create a chorus of caring that’s so insistent Joy can barely stand it. She wants to be treated as she always has, even though she’s dying.

It is with Joy’s illness, and Hedges’ treatment of it, that Pieces of April really stands out. In the movie’s opening scenes, the audience knows there’s a heightened level of concern — the husband and kids rush around the house looking for her, panicking. But it’s only much later that it becomes clear that Joy has cancer, and the information is delivered so elegantly that it should serve as a text for film exposition. Looking through a photo album of her son’s pictures, Joy flips to the photograph of her breasts, and then turns the page to reveal the “new” woman she’s become. And in the bathroom, she adjusts her wig, a subtle gesture that makes the audience realize that the surgery didn’t eradicate the cancer.

Hedges, who wrote the novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and its screenplay, also has a great eye for the intricacies of family interaction. One example: Joy, flattered but also horrified that her “good” daughter is a spittin’ image of her mother, wishes that Beth would start making her own mistakes instead of repeating hers.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t withstand much analysis. The plot mechanics are clunky, it gets a bit silly in the second half, the characters are too thin, and one gets the impression that some detours exist mostly to extend the running time to its still-meager 81 minutes.

But unlike Cold Mountain, a collection of significant flaws doesn’t sink Pieces of April. Its abundant strength is its heart, firmly rooted in love, and you’d have to be a cold, cold person not to be touched.

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