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Pieces of April
Pieces of April, a low-budget family dramedy starring Katie Holmes of “Dawson’s Creek,” imagines the family life of that high school loner who was always up to no good in chemistry class. But Peter Hedges’ directorial debut, baptized in Hedge’s golden screenwriting touch (already used to the benefit of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and About a Boy), humanizes this outcast by burrowing into the life of the character brushed past in high school hallways, endowing her with a family and catching up with her years after high school graduation when she is trying to redeem herself and renew her family ties.
Hedges reunites his audience with April Burns (played with unassuming grace by Katie Holmes), who earned a shoplifting record in high school and was so curiously fond of fire that she once tried to trim her younger brother’s bangs with a lighter. Now 21-years-old and armed with the emotional support of her affectionate boyfriend Bobby (played by the ingratiating Derek Luke of Antwone Fisher fame), April less than eagerly embarks on a day of cooking and decoration to prepare her humble New York apartment for a Thanksgiving dinner with her estranged family. When April discovers her oven has conked out, she is forced to ask her isolationist odd-ball neighbors if she can use theirs. (Her request is granted by an entertaining Sean Hayes of “Will and Grace” as Wayne, the talk of the tenement because of his new fangled convection oven). Meanwhile, three generations of the peculiar Burns family pile into an aging station wagon and slowly and uncertainly make their way to the apartment of their estranged sister, daughter and granddaughter. Along the comic journey, we get to know Joy (played at the perfect acerbic pitch by Patricia Clarkson), April’s hypercritical and sardonic breast cancer-stricken mother who smokes pot and poses nude for her son; Jim (played with understatement by Oliver Platt), April’s eternally tolerant father and the only family member to have drip of genuine expectations and hope for a pleasant Thanksgiving; the under-appreciated overachieving dream-daughter, Beth (Alison Pill); spacey Grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond); and April’s camera click-happy brother Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.).
Filmed on an economical grainy digital film over 16 days on a budget of less than $4 million, Pieces of April showcases homegrown storytelling at its best and marks a strong directorial debut by Peter Hedges. A crowd favorite at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, the film is not likely to be a box office success, but as Hedges remarked during a publicity session following a special Sept. 28 showing of the film at Loews Boston Common, his film does not target a specific demographic like more commercial flicks. With this film, Hedges said he aimed to create a story that was “easy to understand, but hard to handle.” Three hurrahs for a movie that challenges and entertains us.
What makes the American dream so astounding is that, with some hard work, many people can parlay their one special gift into an entire career. For years, John Holmes’ 14-inch gift did all his work for him.
By the time Wonderland’s narrative opens, his fame as the first and biggest hardcore porn star has faded. His career playing sexual detective Johnny Wadd has gone flaccid: he has become just another junkie desperate for his next score.
Holmes’ habit has been made possible and perpetuated by Ron Lanius, played by Sweet Home Alabama’s Josh Lucas as a charismatically psychotic son-of-a-bitch, who keeps Holmes around to humiliate whenever an occasion arises. Lanius and his gang, including Dylan McDermott’s David Lind, a mysterious biker with possible psychotic tendencies, hang out at a drug den on Wonderland Avenue in L.A.
Through a variety of mysterious circumstances, the drug gang, with Holmes’ willing or unwilling assistance, rob the house of Holmes’ other dealer, the millionaire club owner Eddie Nash, a role in which Eric Bogosian tries to top his cartoonish villain in Under Siege 2. Although he doesn’t quite achieve that formidable goal, he does create a sense of empathy for a truly terrible man, aided by his Scarface-like rise from immigrant to mob kingpin.
In revenge for the robbery, Nash, with Holmes’ assistance (whether willing or not is left unclear), sends his men to the drug den on Wonderland and they create a grisly bloodbath rivaled only by the Manson Family murder.
Holmes’ relative guilt in both actions is questioned in Rashomon-like flashbacks that see the past through very different perspectives. Until the very end, we are only clear about the strong sleaziness that pervades this man.
The only trait keeping him from becoming a total loser is his very real love for his 19-year-old mistress Dawn Schiller, played by Kate Bosworth, and Holmes’ continuing affection for his ex-wife, Sharon, played by Lisa Kudrow with a stronger sense of pathos than “Friends” has ever allowed her to express.
Holmes stumbles through his life, double crossing anyone and everyone, yet he is truly pained by the damage he does to these two women. Although his feelings are meant to give him a heart unseen in his interactions with the various drug dealers, one terrible scene in which he whores out his girlfriend, calling her his niece, to Nash, shows that his heart isn’t ultimately in control of the broken, destroyed man.
Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 similarly themed study of the 80s’ destruction of the brightest stars of 70s era pornography, loosely describes the robbery of Eddie Nash’s house at the nadir of the Holmes-like protagonist’s existence. Yet his valley is a brief stop on the road to happiness and a renewed friendship, allowing the audience to believe in redemption.
Wonderland doesn’t give the audience that breathing room. Holmes starts off bad and just gets worse as the movie progresses and more about his character and actions is revealed. I haven’t needed a shower this much after a movie since Boys Don’t Cry, although this dealt with a very different type of sleaze.
Humans can be a truly awful group and no new movie demonstrates this as clearly as Wonderland. Some may be tempted to think that this Wonderland can only be found by going through a rabbit hole entering another terrible universe. In truth, Wonderland unflinchingly show us our own world, making it that much harder to take.
—Scoop A. Wasserstein
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