Arriving after 80 minutes of labored screwball comedy and mawkishness, the moving payoff to writer-director Peter Hedges' otherwise sloppy first feature Pieces Of April comes as a peculiar shock, like a sucker punch seen from a mile away. In the film's only inspired sequence, lasting less than a minute, Hedges finally caps the tedious buildup to a family Thanksgiving with an eloquent, picture-book finish that captures the holiday spirit with touching simplicity. The lesson here–and for all Thanksgiving hanky-soakers, from Home For The Holidays to What's Cooking?–is that the unadorned image of families and communities breaking bread together evinces enough warmth and emotion on its own, without needing to be goosed up by sticky sentiment. Conceived in part as Hedges' heartfelt eulogy to his late mother, who died of cancer, Pieces Of April was made with the noblest intentions, but the introduction of terminal illness doesn't do this thin, fragile wisp of a movie any favors. Taking more roadside pit-stops than Wild Strawberries, a cancer-stricken Patricia Clarkson, weakened by many rounds of chemotherapy, travels with her family from suburban Pennsylvania to New York City for what will likely be her Last Thanksgiving Ever. Awaiting them in a cramped, dilapidated apartment is the family's black sheep, her estranged daughter Katie Holmes, who cooks so infrequently that she uses her stove for storage space. Cramped into a station wagon with desperately optimistic husband Oliver Platt, their two youngest children, and a dithering grandmother with Alzheimer's, Clarkson complains bitterly about Holmes, fully expecting a lousy meal to summate a lifetime of disappointment. In spite of boyfriend Derek Luke's tender assurances, the pressure to deliver weighs heavy on Holmes, especially when a broken oven leads her to beg for turkey time in neighboring kitchens. Shot on grungy video for little money, Pieces Of April keeps the two plot strands away from each other until the last possible moment, sustaining a crude dialogue between Holmes' frantic preparations and Clarkson's long, inexorable journey to the big city. The mismatch in tones continually throws the film off track: Every time Holmes' I Love Lucy shenanigans in the apartment building start to gain comic momentum, they're undercut by Clarkson's petty rancor and frequent bouts of nausea. Best known for writing the book and script for What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Hedges specializes in a quirky, genial brand of family dysfunction, but he has a weakness for coating bittersweet scenes with an excess of sugar. Though Pieces Of April comes together with improbable grace, Hedges evokes unearned tears from a premise that's already loaded from the start. Like Holmes, he serves up boxed stuffing and canned cranberries, then fishes for compliments to the chef.

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