In Pieces of April, writer-director Peter Hedges makes an entertainment out of stringing his audience along. This gangly, nondescript indie begins with the hip young April (Katie Holmes) attempting to make Thanksgiving dinner for her odious family with the help of her black boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke). For 80 grueling minutes, the film alternates between April’s attempts to cook a turkey after her stove breaks down and her family’s uncomfortable car ride to the Lower East Side. Throughout the film, April gets to know her neighbors: a cat collector who also never got along with his mother; the young couple who zones out her pleas for an oven; the black couple who ridicules April’s race before sharing their oven and teaching her how to cook; an Asian family unfamiliar with the meaning of Thanksgiving; and a nelly queen (Sean Hayes, doing a Cajun-fried interpretation of Hannibal Lecter) who lectures the girl on politeness after she makes fun of him. The building’s rainbow coalition seems to exist solely to help April define the meaning of the holiday season but Hedges is more concerned with insulting his characters than he is in evoking the true meaning of family.
The film’s themes walk a strange line between the implicit and the explicit, and Hedges’s idea of nuance is to acknowledge the various pathologies (and diseases) of his characters in only the most roundabout ways. Grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond) gets into the car, but not before her grandchildren introduce themselves to her. We’re supposed to think: “Oh, she must have Alzheimer’s.” Father Jim (Oliver Platt) says something in passing about there possibly not being another Thanksgiving. We’re now supposed to think: “Oh, someone’s dying” (or, if you’ve picked up on the implications of Patricia Clarkson’s wig: “Oh, those radiation treatments aren’t working”). The film’s best moment is a heart-stopping realization outside the Holland Tunnel. There’s a power to this scene that obviously speaks for itself, but Hedges betrays the implicitness of this near-silent exchange by allowing the family’s “perfect” daughter (the annoying, difficult to swallow Alison Pill) to interpret the scene for Grandma (read: the stupid audience) with unfinished half-speak.
Far stranger than the unnecessary air of mystery and constant telegraphing going on here is how Hedges turns disease and race into a running joke. The car ride to New York City is filled with awkward silences, impromptu comedy routines, endless bathroom breaks and one road-kill funeral. The cancer-ridden Joy (Clarkson) is seen breaking down the pleasures of the fictional Smack Daddy’s music like the hip white woman that she is, and because Jim is so eager to meet Bobby (apparently because they have a lot in common), the film’s final racial clash comes as no surprise. While April tends to her Thanksgiving bird, an inexplicably angry Bobby shops for dinner clothes and spends the rest of the day looking for someone named Tyrone (yes, we’re supposed to think this is a black person, but a final twist only muddles Hedges’s already muddled obsession with race). And when April misses his especially sad telephone message, we’re supposed to think: “Oh, he’s not coming home ever again.”
Hedges has fun teasing the audience with the idea of Bobby’s death, but instead chooses to do something more reprehensible. After being beat up by “Tyrone” and his cronies, the normally well-mannered and put-together Bobby runs back to April’s apartment a bloody mess. On cue, April’s parents arrive and Bobby forcibly throws himself onto their car, frightening the suburban clan with “angry black man” spectacle. The insults don’t even stop there. One of April’s oddball neighbors inexplicably shocks the girl by poking fun at her “privileged” skin color before then allowing her to use her oven. And if the film’s humor is mostly misdirected, the drama is pure sap. By film’s end, April gets to break down the meaning of Thanksgiving for a roomful of equally clueless Asians. The talented Holmes is no match for the ineptitude of a scene that has her character expediently discovering the connection between the Pilgrims’ progress and her own family’s devastations.