As a holiday, Thanksgiving has always seemed like an hors d'oeuvre for Christmas -- tasty, but incomplete. Where are the Thanksgiving carols, the Thanksgiving cards, the Thanksgiving tree, the Thanksgiving presents, the Thanksgiving movies? Actually, there are a few Thanksgiving movies, the best of which, in my opinion, is Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays, which carves up Turkey Day, sending slivers of dark comedy and light tragedy flying. And now, just in time for pumpkin pie, here's Peter Hedges' Pieces of April, which doesn't pick up where Home for the Holidays left off so much as leave off where Home for the Holidays picked up. It's about everything leading up to the carving of the turkey -- the planning, the preparing, the anticipation of disaster.
It's Thanksgiving morning, and April (Katie Holmes) is going to pieces. A resident of Manhattan's Lower East Side, she looks like a Goth version of Pippi Longstocking -- red hair in pigtails, black fingernails, tattoos, piercings, Army boots. Plus, her apartment looks like it could be condemned any second. But, for some reason, April's invited her family to drive in from the Pennsylvania suburbs and join her for a meal that she doesn't have the slightest idea how to cook. (She shoves an entire onion up the turkey's ass and goes after raw potatoes with a masher.) Then, she discovers that her oven -- or is it the stove, she can't remember which is which -- is on the blink. Meanwhile, her father (Oliver Platt), her mother (Patricia Clarkson), her sister (Alison Pill), her brother (John Gallagher Jr.) and her aptly named grandmother, Dottie (Alice Drummond), are headed straight toward her in the family station wagon.
Shades of National Lampoon's Thanksgiving Vacation, but Hedges, who wrote What's Eating Gilbert Grape (novel and screenplay), knows how to find a family's dark crevices. This particular family, both utterly familiar and utterly strange, brings a whole new flavor to the word "dysfunctional." Mom's in the latter stages of breast cancer, which would screw up any family, but there's the sense, with this one, that it's only heightened what was already there -- the jealousy, the resentment, the acting out. "Honey, roll it tighter next time," the matriarch tells her son in one of her sweeter moments; they're in a gas-station bathroom, smoking a joint. But nothing can completely dull the pain of 1) knowing she's dying and 2) knowing she's going to spend one of her final days with her estranged daughter. She and April have been estranged since...well, since the womb, apparently.
So, there's a lot riding on this meal, and Hedges is smart enough to delay it as long as possible, allowing us to stew in the family's sour juices. Did I mention that Pieces of April is a comedy? Well, it is, and a damn funny one, too, if you like your comedy really well done, even a little black. As the world's worst daughter, Holmes is miscast, sweetness oozing from every ink-stained pore, but that makes it all the more poignant as April wanders the hallways of her decrepit apartment building, looking for a spare oven. The tenants she meets, we realize when we finally sit down to eat, are also a family of sorts -- the people she spends time with as opposed to the people she serves time with. And for that, she should give thanks.