Driving in from the Pennsylvania suburbs on an overcast Thanksgiving morning, Jim (Oliver Platt), the genial plump father of the scrappy, nettlesome Burns clan, tells his family how eager he is to visit his daughter, a pigtailed punkette named April (Katie Holmes), and to meet her new boyfriend. ”Apparently,” he says, ”this guy Bobby reminds her of me!” The audience is meant to chortle at his innocent misperception, since Pieces of April has already established that Bobby (Derek Luke) is black. We’re meant to think, ”Boy, does Dad have a surprise coming!” But wait a minute: Why, exactly, is this a joke? Is it supposed to be ridiculous that Bobby could remind April of her father? Or that Jim might think so himself? The quaint racial blinders are really on the eyes of the filmmaker, Peter Hedges, who shoves his characters into the narrowest of sitcom slots and seals them there.
”Pieces of April” is only 81 minutes long, and it was shot on digital video, in a scrappy low-budget style that declares its homespun plainness in every shot. The entire movie unfolds on Thanksgiving, as Hedges cuts back and forth between the Burns family in their station wagon, squabbling and reminiscing as they cruise along the freeway toward New York City, and April in her Lower East Side walk-up as she frantically tries to cajole one of her neighbors into lending her the use of an oven so that she can prepare the big turkey roast. (Her own oven is on the blink.) The setup is appealingly small-scale, yet the film’s tone is one of fake intimacy – shtick parading as quirky truth. April’s haplessness in the kitchen is an overstated gag, and who are her neighbors? Let’s put it this way: ”sassy” middle-aged black couple, wacky psycho cat guy, sullen psycho vegan, and Sean Hayes as an anal-retentive yuppie who’s like Norman Bates gone ”Queer Eye.”
April is supposed to be the angry prodigal daughter who has spent her life at war with her mother, but all we see in Katie Holmes is the soul of softness and light. The one glint of honest comedy in ”Pieces of April” comes from Patricia Clarkson’s exuberantly hostile performance as Joy Burns, who isn’t just wisecracking through her breast-cancer therapy – she’s laughing, tearful yet open-eyed, at the grave. A viewer can embrace Clarkson even as the Instamatic feel-good ending violates everything she brings to the movie.