In which I watch a DVD I’ve owned for years, long after doing so could have any meaning.
Why’d I Buy It?
When this came out, I read a one-paragraph “Capsule Review.” It said something like, “Katie Holmes proves we’ve been wrong to expect nothing from her all these years.” Haha, WHOA, Capsule Reviewer! Try less hate in your next compliment! But I was hooked: this guy despised her and even he came around. She must’ve really Thunderdomed it! More importantly, the Capsule called it “a true New York City story.” I grew up near NYC and worked there for two years and had no idea wtf that meant. I would find out.
Why’d I Never Watch It?
I’ve owned this DVD for 10 years. Basically, just what you’d expect: I’ve never watched it because it’s a holiday movie, and the holiday isn’t Christmas or Halloween.
Now, thanks to old man fatima’s descent into a shark-infested abyss / a museum basement, I know what I’ve been missing.
If this movie was 8 minutes long, people around the world might be saying, “Citizen Kane is good, but have you seen Pieces of April?” Unfortunately, it is 80 minutes long. A lot can go wrong when you have to kill that much time and only have 8 minutes of ideas.
Keep in mind, as you watch the whole thing, the hero’s journey:
FADE UP on April (Katie Holmes) asleep on a mattress that has NO SHEETS. We spend a few minutes watching her and her boyfriend (Derek Luke) wake up while INDIE music plays, under the eye of a shaky INDIE!cam. (“Really take the shakes to a Cassavettes level, maybe beyond; if we can’t afford a good song just get some plunka-plunka sounding thing”– a note in the margin of the director’s script.) Anyway these kids might not have the planning skills required to own, wash, and use sheets, but look. LOOK. They are in love. Although, uh, it is best to overlook how when she hops on top to get the sex going, she also recites — through the throes of middling PG-13 passion — the recipes she plans to make. “Waldorf Salad! Made with apples, celery, grapes, nuts!” Okay, movie, maybe put on some pants and get to the kitchen.
Eh, no rush, a turkey takes five hours and the family is five hours away. April, who has never really cooked before, has invited them from The Suburbs (what suburb is five hours away? Montpelier?) to her tiny Lower East Side pad.
As for the family: they get off to a much less romantical start. Dad (Lake Placid’s Oliver Platt) freaks out because he can’t find Mom. He scours the house, with Sis and Bro freaking out too.
Sitting in the garage staring off into space is not dementia, turns out — it is only her way of getting the show on the road. After all, her time is limited. Because (here is why we have a movie) she has terminal cancer.
Movie does not sugar-coat it: Mom’s probably not gonna be around next year. In fact, Mom vomits three times in the movie, which is a lot given her 35-40 minutes of screen time. But it establishes a nice rhythm for her, essentially scene-scene-barf-scene-scene-barf-scene-scene-barf — a barf waltz.
Bro and Sis try to be suuuper nice to Mom on the long car ride/barf waltz to April’s, but movie takes the interesting step of making them super goddamn irritating. Oof, Sis is manic in her attempts to make Mom’s Last Months a total delight. Consequently Mom just wants to get the hell away from her. This isn’t funny. Dark comedy? Whatever it is, the family interaction hurts. It’s the kind of movie where Mom says to Sis, “You’re the daughter of my dreams. Apart from your weight problems, we’re practically the same person.” Pretty much every line is a variation on that line.
In fact, what a bunch of assholes. They stop at a Krispy Kreme and all talk at once while ordering until Dad says, “Just remember, everyone, April is cooking!” Which 1) then why did you even stop here, you big dummy, and 2) this reminder causes the mom to shout at the cashier, “We’ll need an extra dozen, glazed!” Lol? I hope you all hork up those donuts, not just Mom.
Yeah, so, this is key: April’s family hates her. A lot. There is a scene in the car where the family is struggling to think up a single positive memory of her (because this movie can’t ever have a light touch). Finally they come up with one: when she was a baby, asleep. Other than that, her whole life has been spent starting fires, shoplifting, doing “all the drugs,” and acting violent. They live in fear of her visits home, hate her boyfriends (they haven’t met Derek Luke), and dread finding out that she’s gotten yet another awful tattoo.
I wish the script was sharper about the family. Some of their moments are almost subtle, some are surprising, some have a little humor, but at no point will you say, “Wow, that moment had all three.” The movie never gels that way.
Maybe one reason why is that at almost every turn it prefers to throw a quirk our way instead of something real. I mean, we’re dealing with a movie where the family car hits a squirrel so they pull over and perform a funeral. Quirky! Where Sis is a talented singer who sings in the car – but what she sings is opera. Quir-ky! Where Bro is a budding photographer who did a nude photo shoot of Mom. Quirrrrkay. So. When finally a measured pause occurs – say, camera moves to show us Grandma’s placid reaction to someone’s extreme decision – it comes across as a blank spot rather than a space into which (as was probably hoped) meaning rushes. Grandma’s face tells us… what? We’ve spent too much time on quirks and not enough on the real-people shit that might help us understand.
But the movie is titled Pieces of April, not April’s Unlikely Family, so let’s focus on her. She is on her own heroic journey to cook these pilgrims a fucking turkey. Preparation involves a few scenes of her just staring off unhappily (one takes place on the toilet). She doesn’t really want the fam to come because they’re awful? Or she does want them to come, but she worries she will ruin dinner and they will be like “We knew it. You’re a disaster”? Probably the second one, and she’s struggling to make it the first one? The important thing is, cook a turkey.
Naturally, the first step toward success is throwing out Derek Luke. “Go. Cooking will be easier without you.” Good idea, April, it is only a giant feast and you’ve never cooked before. So we get plenty of her alone, cooking like a total asshole. She peels a potato like she’s never seen one (you watch and say, “She is going to cut herself,” and a second later she DOES), she uses tiny mixing bowls for big jobs, gets frustrated, hurls food around — we already knew from the lack of bed sheets that planning and cleanliness are not her thing, but watching her prep food we also learn she has poor impulse control, tends to turn her anger at the world into self-sabotage, and has no spatial reasoning skills.
Oh, I almost forgot, THE ACTUAL PLOT: she discovers her oven doesn’t work. She can’t call her otherwise perfect boyfriend for help because he doesn’t own a cell phone (in 2003). So the only way to get dinner done is to knock on every door in her building. This is her heroic journey. Alone, she ventures into the wilderness (the stairwell) to meet her neighbors, borrow an oven, and return with edible turkey and ineffable wisdom.
Okay, here’s a good spot to mention that not everyone is gonna be 100% comfortable with this movie as it relates to race. Because it does the thing where people of color exist mainly to help the white girl on her way. In movie’s favor, none of these characters simply disappear when that job is done, and a lot of time is spent semi-fully realizing them as normal people. But the white family is such a goddamn mess that in contrast, simply by being normal, our black and ESL friends come across as saintly and magical. But they’re normal! Is that racist? As a caucasian dude, I miiiight not be the one to decide, so decide for yourself (unless you are caucasian).
Nevermind the helpers, though. This movie has to live or die by April, and one question that never gets an answer is, why is Derek Luke so into her? Why should we be? Movie lets her be abrupt and extreme in a few small moments, and clearly she is not a person who asks for help easily, but movie never shows her doing the theft, arson, violence, glue-sniffing — we don’t see the alleged depths, and it’s hard to believe they’re real. Likewise, it’s impossible to imagine the moment where she was just so magical herself that Derek Luke gazed upon her and decided: From now on I will be a guy who gives speeches to my friends about the transformative power of love. I will even give one in this movie (but it will be about “love,” not about her specifically). She’s just not written to be compelling. She is written as if (and Katie delivers on this) despite all the eyeshadow and alleged crack intake, deep down she is just Everygirl.
What our April needs instead is to have a unique, magnetic verve. We need to see clearly that a particular destiny is at stake. And the actorly challenge would be to portray both the attractive and repulsive polarities of this magnetic… whatever-I-said.
Could Katie Holmes wrap that up and put a bow on it? She is no Meryl Streep. Oh man, Streep would have crushed this! Big oversight not casting Streep as April. Have you guys seen Sophie’s Choice? Would. Have. Crushed.
But there is a hallway scene where April feels ruined and is about to cry when a neighbor happens by. Instantly a “Dammit, don’t cry in front of this nobody” instinct kicks in and she turns off the sad face. And before it is completely turned off, the barest hint of calculation scoots across her eyes, in which you see Wait, maybe he will help. Okay: Cry. And like that, her sad face comes back – but this time as, partly, a performance. Oh Jesus that is nice. How did you do that? Good job, Katie Holmes.
But mostly April is not written to let any actress make her an individual. As the family half of the movie was saddled with quirks, April’s half is saddled with metaphors. She is on a journey that is zero percent different from the standard journey of medieval lit: The hero sets out on a quest, and in unknown lands he (usually he) meets magical weirdos who test him and give him gifts and wisdom. In the end, if he has done everything right, he gets to meet the fisher king (Mom, this time) who is dying and wants empathy. You and Sir Percival, April! He’s a legend, so you’re in good company! But the fucking truth is that all you’re doing is trying to convince some neighbors to lend you their oven and they are speaking in none-too-subtle symbolic lessons to us, like they’re the cryptic hermit in the year 1310 and you’re wearing a sign that says EVERYGIRL. Take magical weirdo Sean Hayes:
So the script lets you down, Lady Holmes. And I gather there was an overall team decision made on set to stop you from committing fully to the part. “In addition to alleging that she’s rabidly self-destructive, let’s portray her as sweet,” you can almost hear somebody dumb saying. This guy was probably nervous about marketability and sneaked into wardrobe and makeup and warned them, “Keep her cute at all costs. She’s Joey Potter! The people want cute.” Do they? I imagine they’d pay twice as much to see spiders tattooed on her shaved skull and a scene where she wakes up extra early to kick heroin before mashing the potatoes.
Mom and April want to have a nice moment together, and both doubt it will happen. That’s not simple, so points for setting a high bar. But the ridicufamily and the medieval journey through the apartment building are too rarely entertaining, and the insights about these fictional people are not exciting. There are three (3) moments of real, impactful emotion, worth experiencing. But around those, it’s a coral reef of bullshit and despair.
Gavel Bang! Rank It!
It’s a “New York City story” because she doesn’t know her neighbors, I guess? I liked that her apartment looked real? I’m going to seat this DVD at #333. On its left is Curse of the Golden Flower, a formless Chinese extravaganza that has the dizzying look of nothing real that ever happened, and to its right is Finding Forrester, which has more than its fair share of uncomfortable race stuff. I award Pieces of April Four liters of cheap wine in a single screwcap jug, which we’re going to need all of to get through dinner together.