Family: It’s what Thanksgiving is all about, isn’t it? I mean, besides the waiting for the arrival of Santa to wrap up the Macy’s parade in the morning and the gorging in the afternoon and the massive cleanup in the evening. In between Wednesday’s hard-hitting Eyewitness News dispatches from the embeds at the departures terminal at the airport and Friday’s disgusting Roman bread-and-circuses spectacle of hoards of deranged women in patchwork snowman sweatshirts racing for the $8.74 DVD players in Walmart at 5:30am, there’s a whole day to just hang out with the people you love while the turkey roasts.
I cooked for 10 people — family and friends-who-are-family — last Thursday, and we had a blast. Oh, they’re all crazy, of course (myself included), but the good kind of crazy. Now, of course I’ve heard tell of some people who just flat out don’t get along with their families, or don’t like them… like April Burns’s in Peter Hedges’s (About a Boy) Pieces of April. What’s particularly intriguing about this entry in the I-hate-the-family-especially-at-the-holidays genre is that punky April and the rest of her straighter-laced family don’t actually spend any time together during the film — it’s all her getting the dinner ready and them making the trip to her place and none of them really enthusiastic about the day and wondering why they’re even bothering. Which makes the film all the more compelling — though it eschews the typical portrait of the squabbles and digs and half-intentional insults that often characterize love/hate family relationships, it ends up with a lot to say about the comfortable mess that is “family” anyway, and it does so without an iota of schmaltz.
It’s hard to imagine how this film could be schmaltzy: everyone in it is fairly prickly and hard to like, even when it makes you feel icky and wrong not to like them. Take April’s mother, Joy, who’s dying of something or other — that much is obvious from the beginning of the film. You’re not supposed to hate people’s mothers who are dying, especially not when there’s all the inconvenient stopping to vomit during the car drive from Bland Suburbia, New Jersey, or wherever April’s parents and siblings are hauling themselves from. Patricia Clarkson (Miracle, Dogville) plays Mom, and even in a dumb made-for-TV Oh My God Mom’s Dying! kind of movie, she’d all but dare you to feel sorry for her or go all goopy because she’s dying. But Hedges’s script here has her talking about how much she really doesn’t even like April, her own daughter. That’s pretty cold… but it’s real, and the superb Clarkson of course keeps Joy from being a villain, keeps her just a sad, regretful woman.
On the other hand, April is a little bit of a bitch: she’s ungrateful to the neighbors in the East Village tenement who come to her aid when she smacks up against a Thanksgiving-killer of a problem as she attempts to prepare dinner. Katie Holmes (Abandon, Phone Booth) is pretty darn near the cutest she’s ever been in her ripped clothes and black-eye makeup, but more notably she gives her most subtle and audacious performance yet, daring us not to like her while also injecting just the right amount of desperateness into April to make us appreciate the sincerity behind what will probably be her last chance to patch things up with her mother. If she ever shows up…
There’s a real spirit of Thanksgiving beyond the reconciliation April and her mother are (maybe) inching toward: not in April’s ideas about cranberry sauce (people like the kind in the can) or potatoes (they should be mashed before they’re cooked), but in the genuine melting pot of the building where she lives and how she’s forced to meet all her neighbors — the black guy who’s a gourmet cook, the elderly Chinese couple who don’t even speak English, the gay dude and his little dog — in her search for help. It’s like her own little exploratory adventure into the unknown, just like the Pilgrims had. She approaches it with a gusto born of necessity, one that probably means she’ll have a good chance with her mother, too, if not today then definitely before it’s too late.
Another reason to rejoice in Pieces of April is that most horrid-families-do-holiday-cheer movies deserve to be thrown away with the turkey carcass. Like National Lampoon’s Thanksgiving Family Reunion (aka National Lampoon’s Holiday Reunion), as crass and disgusting as a movie can get and still be aired on basic cable (this one premiered on TBS last year). When an appallingly shallow Los Angeles clan spends Thanksgiving with their dreadfully bawdy country relatives, can sheer vulgarity be far behind? Indeed, it cannot.
Why “anesthesiologist to the stars” Mitch Snider (Judge Reinhold: Santa Clause 2) would suggest a trip to Redneck, Idaho, is a mystery, unless he was hoping he’d be able to abandon his nightmare of a wife (Hallie Todd) there — she had wondered who would cook and clean if they had Thanksgiving at home, which was Mitch’s first suggestion, what with the maid off for the day and all. So they pile into the SUV to visit long-lost cousin Woodrow (Bryan Cranston: Seeing Other People, Saving Private Ryan) and his wife, Pauline (Penelope Ann Miller). For fun, the Sniders bring along “Uncle” Phil (Antony Holland) who isn’t really anyone’s uncle, but he does fart a lot, and don’t think the flatulence of the elderly will not be deployed whenever there’s a lag in the laughs, which is the entire running time of this trial.
The movie — which makes one realize that there were, in fact, days when the “National Lampoon” brand was a mark of relative quality — features such hilarities as vicious crotch-sniffing dogs, monster-truck chases, dot-com jokes from 1997, and hardly anything to do with Thanksgiving at all. But it does dare to ask the question: If you were in the shower in the house of your crude, stupid, most likely insane hillbilly cousin, and someone else’s hands reached into the shower and started scrubbing your body, how long would it take you to notice?