Cinema Signal:

. "Pieces of April"

We're in cooking mode, folks, following in the food preparation mold of "Tortilla Soup", "Tampopo" (1986), Ang Lee's "Eat Drink Man Woman" (1994) and Stanley Tucci's "Big Night" (1996). While the framework differs, the predictability factor is as steady as a simmering saute. But there's enough spice in the delightful company of lead Katie Holmes to make this as savory a meal as Thanksgiving ever offered.

April Burns (Holmes) is living in an East Side (Manhattan) tenement with boyfriend Bobbie (Derek Luke) who, on this special day, finds it necessary to force her awake and into a shower. Maybe her reluctance to face getting out of bed is her dread of what might come of the planned dinner for the family, in which she's clearly the black sheep but the idea was to earn some forgiveness and respect with a good Thanksgiving dinner.

The idea is that Bobbie has to go out for a little business which seems to be the acquisition of new suit from a street bud, but we recognize this as just a story to make him temporarily unavailable to April when she needs help, motivating her to seek help from a disparate league of neighbors. Bobbie's episodic journey is a separate story arc intercut with the other two.

April's family, whose mother (Patricia Clarkson) has cancer, whose father is a good old guy (Oliver Platt), whose brother Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) is amiable and whose sister Beth (Alison Pill) doesn't think the plan to go to New York is a very good one what with mother so sick. Oh, and yes, there's also deviously senile grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond) who remembers more about her kids than the kids realize. The car ride to the big city is largely a trip of recalling all the bad things about April and her ex-druggie boyfriend.

All of which is intercut with April's travails over her turkey, which is the primary drama. It's set in motion when she discovers that her stove won't work. With Bobbie away, she seeks assistance up and down her apartment building, finding a variety of people, situations and points of view. Her door to door peregrinations turn up a couple of hermit types who won't give her the time of day; a black couple who first laugh at the cute little whitebread who thinks she has a problem then turns their sincere concern and culinary skills to her benefit; an uptight businessman with a brand new stove who wants something for his roasting favor; an oriental family who doesn't speak English but understands and resolves the problem; and others. It's a chronicle of lady in distress reactions up and down the social mileau.

Major and minor parts are creatively realized though the overall effect of writer-director Peter Hedges' scenario becomes fluffy with sentiment in its determination to make humanity essentially good. His handheld camera is consistently annoying, identifying him as a misguided filmmaker who thinks digital video is inconsistent with solid support.

But despite a little distaste here and there, what holds it all together and makes it a joy is to be in the company of Katie Holmes. Her natural delivery, her erotically homespun looks, her determined and delightful personality erases any concern over story or storytelling misdirections and brings her movie into the realm of a potential hit. She's captivating audiences all over the place. She caught my attention in the devious "The Singing Detective" and this tour in the kitchen gels with me, her devoted fan. She's a recipe that can become addictive.

Finally, what these films about a major meal tend to do is to emphasize the thread that binds people of all persuasions, colors, and ethnicity. We shouldn't think that treaties among nations don't have good eating as part of the diplomatic backbone. When good cooking is the objective, fellowship tends to be the important ingredient.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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