Holiday Reunion

Piercing Drama: Katie Holmes in Pieces of AprilPhoto: Teddy Maki

Pieces of April is built around the tired premise of a dysfunctional family’s Thanksgiving get-together, but—surprise—it’s fresh. First-time director Peter Hedges, who co-wrote the scripts for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and About a Boy, has a feeling for how people behave in extreme situations. Almost everyone in this movie is distraught, and yet, because Hedges doesn’t judge them too harshly, no one descends into caricature. At least not for long. His affection for his characters is palpable; when they make fools of themselves, which is most of the time, it’s taken to be a sign of their humanity.

Pierced and ringleted, with red-highlighted pigtails, April (Katie Holmes) lives in a grungy Lower East Side walk-up with her devoted boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke, from Antwone Fisher), who encourages her to reconcile with her estranged family and cook a turkey dinner. When her oven breaks down, she is forced to find another in her building. As she implores her neighbors door-to-door, we get a deft cross section of its inhabitants, including a rowdy, affectionate black couple (marvelously played by Lillias White and Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a Chinese family, and a fastidious bachelor (Sean Hayes). This is a particularly resonant idea for an urban comedy. The performers, some of whom, like Holmes (Dawson’s Creek) and Hayes (Will & Grace), are best known for snug-fitting TV roles, respond with something resembling abandon. They looked pleased to be playing people who, for a change, have more than one tiny thing on their minds. April’s various apartment encounters play like self-contained revue sketches, but they also deepen the film’s theme of loss and reconciliation. The strangers who help her are her (instant) surrogate family. She feels closer to them, in some ways, than to her real family, whom she desperately wants to impress.

“Holmes’s various apartment encounters play like self-contained revue sketches.”

While all this is going on, April’s clan is driving down from upstate suburbia. Her pot-smoking brother (John Gallagher Jr.) and prissy sister (the aptly named Alison Pill) and dotty grandmother (Alice Drummond) are packed in the car, along with her parents, Jim (Oliver Platt), the family peacekeeper, and Joy (Patricia Clarkson), who so dreads April’s cooking that she fills up on doughnuts and gives advice on how to discard food without letting the hostess know. (A few of their road-trip incidents, including the disposing of a run-over raccoon, veer disconcertingly close to National Lampoon’s Vacation terrain.) Joy, who has cancer, is the harrowed and wisecracking opposite of her even-keeled husband. She has dispensed with the petty formalities of life and at times seems funkier than her children; when she shares a joint with her son, she matter-of-factly asks him to roll it tighter next time. Clarkson and Platt are painfully believable as a couple bound by love and fear. When, near the end, he sees her resting with her eyes closed and thinks for a moment that she is dead, the movie’s dramatic key suddenly drops an octave. Hedges keeps everything in balance: The sadness and frivolity all seem to be part of the same emotional continuum. He’s made a lingeringly poignant little movie.

While I was watching Veronica Guerin, starring Cate Blanchett, I kept imagining the movie it might have been before director Joel Schumacher and producer Jerry Bruckheimer got their hands on it. A great subject has been slicked up. Guerin was an Irish journalist who exposed high-level drug lords and whose murder at the age of 36 in 1996 made her a national hero and led to bolstered criminal laws. As might be expected, her story is heavily weighted toward blood and bullets; we never feel that we know this woman as anything but a crusader. She places herself and her family in terrible jeopardy and is shot in the leg as a warning, and yet all we really find out about her is that she can’t stop. Blanchett has the right white-hot intensity to play Guerin, and she is capable of showing fear as well as righteousness. But she’s never allowed to develop much subtlety or richness, because the filmmakers keep upping the mayhem. (One scene hits home: Her bloody face-to-face confrontation with Gerard McSorley’s drug kingpin.) A character as psychologically complex as Guerin—whose drive may not have been fully comprehensible even to herself—needs a lot of room to expand on screen. Schumacher and Bruckheimer box her in.

In theory, I like the idea that Joel and Ethan Coen decided to make an old-fashioned star-filled Hollywood romantic comedy, Intolerable Cruelty, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones as a golddigger and George Clooney as the Beverly Hills divorce lawyer who is her prey. After all, in the context of their highly eccentric oeuvre, what could be more radical than to turn out their version of a glossy studio entertainment? But Intolerable Cruelty, while tolerable, isn’t very radical—or very good, either. The Coens wrote the script eight years ago on assignment, not intending to direct it, and that may explain why the result often lacks their customary bizarro facetiousness. There are a few nippy, amusing moments—like the way the preening attorney is constantly inspecting the ultrawhiteness of his capped teeth, or a delicious cameo by Jonathan Hadary as an effete concierge on the witness stand—but the chemistry between Zeta-Jones and Clooney is surprisingly lackluster. They look like they’re not sure what kind of movie they’re supposed to be in. One can only sympathize.

In brief: José padilha’s extraordinary documentary Bus 174 (at Film Forum) is about the hijacking of a Rio de Janeiro commuter bus, which was captured live by television crews in 2000, by a despondent, slum-dwelling young man. Hostages are interviewed after the fact, along with law enforcers and street people and family members who knew him. It all adds up to a searing portrait of social misery… . Concert for George—a filmed record of a memorial concert for George Harrison last November at London’s Royal Albert Hall—brings together not only Paul and Ringo but also Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Ravi Shankar, and a few of the Monty Pythoners. The jamboree is beautifully shot and directed, by Chris Menges and David Leland respectively, and there is a haunting touch: the presence of George’s son, Dhani, on guitar, looking near-identical to his dad in his twenties.

Holiday Reunion