Pieces of April (opens Friday, November 7, at the Little) has two separate storylines that approach each other like a pair of proverbial math-class trains. Train A is a dumpy apartment on the Lower East Side, home to 21-year-old punk-princess April Burns (Katie Holmes) and her new boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke). April, who is like a Bizarro World Joey Potter with tattoos, dyed hair, and ratty clothes, struggles to wake up and get out of bed. It's Thanksgiving morning, and while the rest of her big-city pals are likely still catching z's, April has to get up and prepare the Big Holiday Meal.
Trouble is, April doesn't know how to cook her way out of a paper bag. This situation is compounded by a broken oven, a neat disappearing trick by Bobby, and a general resentment toward the family she will be hosting in a few hours. April is the oldest child, or "the first pancake," as she painfully calls herself. She's better without her family, and they're better off without her. Still, that doesn't stop April from making a concerted effort to pull off a decent meal. This involves knocking on the doors of her neighbors for TRA (turkey roasting assistance), which is where we meet the catty Wayne (Sean Hayes), and the helpful yet skeptical Evette (Lillias White) and Eugene (Isiah Whitlock Jr).
Train B, meanwhile, is hurtling toward Manhattan from suburban Pennsylvania in the form of a station wagon. Inside is April's family, and it's dysfunctional enough to make you think of Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays at least seven times. Mom (Patricia Clarkson) has cancer, and this is likely to be her last Thanksgiving. Whiny sister Beth (Alison Pill), who got an A in home ec, wonders why they have to drag sickly Mom to the ungrateful April's apartment when April can't even peel a potato. Pothead brother Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) bickers with Beth when he isn't rolling pain-alleviating fatties for his mom. Dad (Oliver Platt) is excited to meet April's new boyfriend, because she said Bobby reminds her of him, while senile Grandma (Alice Drummond) assumed April died years ago.
Like School of Rock, Pieces isn't so much about telling a new story as it is about taking an old story and breathing some fresh air into it. Nobody will be surprised at how Pieces ends, but many will be happy at how it reaches its very Thanksgiving-y conclusion. The acting is strong across the board, with Holmes finally getting a chance to show some range and Clarkson netting a Sundance Special Jury Prize for her acting.
Tami Reiker, who shot High Art and some of HBO's gorgeous Carnivàle, does a great job wielding her handheld digital video camera here, but I'm still not sure what to make of the thread involving Luke's character. Not only is it distractingly unnecessary (aside from filling out the already skeletal running time), but it also involves Sisqo, and that's just something I can't get behind.
Richard Curtis has penned some of the biggest UK-to-US hits in Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral, but Love Actually (opens Friday everywhere) is his first directorial effort. The result is a depressingly upbeat film that would be the perfect Christmas picture if it weren't being released seven weeks before that particular holiday.
On one hand, I'd like to congratulate Curtis for making a movie featuring 10 significant story threads that isn't as jumpy and uneven as you might expect from a first-time director. On the other hand, I deplore him for taking this very smart cast and occasionally degrading them into humor and situations usually found in dreck like My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Since I don't have any hands left, I guess I'll have to use a foot to apply a crushing blow to Curtis's swimsuit region for literally forcing the audience to applaud several times at the end of Actually. But since his film isn't nearly as saccharine as an inevitably PG-13-rated American version would likely be (this is full of nasty language and more than a few pairs of bare boobs), I'll spare him from being Rochambeaued with my other foot.
In a sense, the notion of cramming 10 different stories into the same film works because, say, if you tire of one, it will be gone in just a few minutes. But on the off chance you become really attached to any of them --- too bad. There isn't enough time to spend on any one particular story thread, and that turns most of the characters into walking clichés... with a couple of exceptions.
Essentially, Actually is about a gaggle of people attempting to overcome various differences in hopes of finding True Holiday Love (herein referred to as THL) during the five weeks leading up to Christmas. The differences could be language (Colin Firth is an author who can't understand his hot Portuguese housekeeper), nationality (Kris Marshall is a loser in the UK but believes he can score Grade A women in the States), caste (Hugh Grant is the new British PM who falls for an underling from the wrong side of the tracks), age (Laura Linney wants to bang her steamy young co-worker), marital status (the married Alan Rickman considers screwing his single assistant), or the River Styx (the mourning Liam Neeson's wife just died). There're more, too. So many more.
In the notes I took during the film, I mentioned how nobody had to conquer the Gay Barrier, but Curtis, of course, finds a way to cram that into the already bulging story, as well. The notes came in handy, since you could use them to check off each thread as it is neatly wrapped up in the last reel.
I could have used less of Marshall's improbable story (he gets to shag Elisha Cuthbert, Ivana Milicevic, January Jones, Shannon Elizabeth, and Denise Richards), and much less of Grant doing the Cruise-in-Risky Business thing with a Pointer Sisters song before being caught by a stuffy staffer at No. 10 Downing Street. And the two more interesting storylines --- involving a washed-up rocker (Bill Nighy) making an unlikely Christmas comeback and two porn movie stand-ins (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) --- seemed underdeveloped. But it may have only seemed that way because they were the most interesting to me. And now that I think about it, everything was underdeveloped.
Actually is one of those films you enjoy while you're watching it, then realize how truly empty it is some time later. But that's okay, especially for a light holiday film that, for many people, is only going to serve as a brief distraction from shopping and dealing with Thanksgiving relatives. It's easy to be sidetracked, too, as Curtis's London is, as always, filled with very beautiful people with nice clothes and even nicer flats (complete with state-of-the-art flat screen televisions). And he even includes a lovely message for anyone who plans on traveling for the holidays: It's perfectly fine to dash past airport security, but only in the name of THL.
Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.