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Desperately Escaping Dawson's Creek: Katie Holmes remakes her TV image as a post-punkette in 'Pieces of April.'

The Prodigal Daughter

Katie Holmes is rebelling for the holidays in TV-sweet 'Pieces of April'

By Richard von Busack

IMAGINE the situation of a gore fan who wanders into Pieces of April--what if it's inadvertently double-billed with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Even Leatherface isn't as horrific as that Three Dog Night hit that lends its title to this indie-movie caramel, wrapped in a crunchy Dogme shell.

Katie Holmes plays April Burns, a New York girl of unspecified means togged out as a post-punkette, hennaed and mascaraed and wearing a T-shirt spotted with what look like self-inflicted gobs of color. In The Gift, Holmes demonstrated that she had what it took to play sultry bad women. Here she's taken a step back. She plays a kind of adolescent, a prodigal daughter still rebelling against her family.

On Thanksgiving, April's family leave their home deep in the suburbs to meet April at her slummy apartment in New York City. Her father, Jim Burns (Oliver Platt), is a clueless, hearty gent, fat and dense. Son Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) is a mischievous amateur photographer, forced to ride in the station wagon next to his Miss-Perfect sis (Alison Pill); they've even picked up their ga-ga grandmother (Alice Drummond).

How does this differ much--wacky brother, gaga female relation, prissy sis--from the basic situation in the superior Thanksgiving opus Home for the Holidays? One word: cancer. Mom (Patricia Clarkson), ironically named Joy, has had a double mastectomy. Everyone suspects that this will be her last Thanksgiving.

April has volunteered to make dinner, as a way of mending fences. Unfortunately, she didn't take the time to learn how to cook a turkey; she fists it with handfuls of stuffing, ramrodding the mush in with unsliced stalks of celery. At this point, April discovers her oven has conked out. While her live-in boyfriend (Derek Luke from Antwone Fisher) goes out on an errand, April combs her tenement building to try to find a stove she can borrow. Now she gets to meet her neighbors: a gruff, then friendly African American couple; some newly arrived Asians who have Thanksgiving explained to them; an anal-retentive Crispin Glover type (Sean Hayes of Will & Grace).

This is the first film to use an extensive soundtrack by the multitalented Stephin Merritt, late of San Francisco. Merritt's various bands, particularly the Sixths, boost the wistfulness factor in Pieces of April. Some might come out of the theater thinking more about the music than the film, as they did exiting Harold and Maude.

Director Peter Hedges, who wrote the novel and screenplay for What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, has thoroughly serious, artistic intentions. Yet Pieces of April seems as essentially easy to swallow as an evening of TV. First, a cooking disaster (I Love Lucy) and then the road trip (switch channels and you're watching a Comedy Central broadcast of National Lampoon's Vacation). At last comes an almost desperately feel-good ending.

Holmes is clearly a performer who has something to give the movies. To date, she's been typecast as an actress on the basis of her large, haunted eyes. Holmes' fountain-of-sorrow part on Dawson's Creek should have spawned a drinking game: take a shot each time she cries.

Holmes' April may be a case of an actress constitutionally unable to understand her character. A driven young performer, who's been working since her teens, might not be able to figure out what's eating April Burns. Holmes' characterization never seems to go deeper than the clothes and the makeup. And since Joy and April don't really have a scene together, we never see what she might have in common with her mother.

Clarkson's sadness and saltiness may be enough to sell this film--as, apparently, Sarah Polley is good enough to sell the drippy My Life Without Me. If independent movies were as independent as they are supposed to be, a character like the one Polley plays in My Life Without Me could have just gone out and had an affair without waiting for a case of terminal cancer. Half the women in the audience would have excused the infidelity by saying, "Her husband makes her live in a trailer." And that affair would have been a sufficient subject for a drama. But the old Hollywood logic seems to be: if the lady dies, that excuses her sinfulness.

Like My Life Without Me, Pieces of April is a scavenged TV movie, roughed up with a hand-held camera. Isn't it enough that April's family is feuding? Aren't they important enough to learn about without the disease? Once again, a screenwriter has used cancer to nail down a slight script. And once again, those who've lost people to cancer have cause to feel manipulated.

Pieces of April may be essentially a holiday film. There were times watching Home for the Holidays when I feared someone was going to end up revealing a fatal disease. Part of the delight in watching the film was that no one did. The Jodie Foster movie wasn't Chekhov, but it kept its wistfulness because it was clearly about a little, homey subject.

Was Home for the Holidays called ephemeral because no one got sick? Will critics think Pieces of April shows a more profound approach to life and death because of a few references to chemotherapy wigs?

Pieces of April (PG-13; 81 min.), directed and written by Peter Hedges, photographed by Tami Reiker and starring Katie Holmes and Patricia Clarkson, opens Friday at the Camera 7 in Campbell and the CinéArts in Palo Alto.

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From the October 23-29, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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