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Pieces of April
(PG-13; 81 min.)
Suncoast




The Big Empty
(R, 94 min.)
Orleans

Thursday, November 20, 2003
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

Film: Holmes' sweet home

Thanksgiving with Katie in Pieces of April

As far as teen icons go, Katie Holmes is to film what Pink is to rock 'n' roll--an entertainer earmarked for dismissal because of her ties to malljammer culture, but exhibiting enough sincere attitude to warrant praise and interest. She's the reason you're a closet "Dawson's Creek" fan; she was a standout in Doug Liman's most excellent Go; and now she serves as the lure for sometimes-acerbic, sometimes-endearing Pieces of April, which, judging by the promotional artwork's Hot Topic representation of the actress, suggests another troubled-girl flick in the vein of Thirteen.

However, Holmes' 21-year-old April isn't ditching dinner so she can steal from the boutiques on Melrose--she's actually making it for her family, driving on Thanksgiving Day from suburban Pennsylvania to a ratty part of New York, where April lives with her boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke). This is her chance to do something nice for a family that has alienated her as much as she has it. The wild card is her mother (Patricia Clarkson), a droll cancer sufferer who makes no bones about having few pleasant memories of her daughter. Throw in a broken oven and an uncooked turkey, and doom seems imminent.

Pieces isn't a Holmes vehicle like Teaching Mrs. Tingle, if only because the supporting cast has a tendency to outperform her, for better (Lillias White, sharply playing April's straight-talkin' neighbor) or worse (an abysmally bad Sean Hayes, as her building's resident creepoid). Ultimately, it's Clarkson who runs away with the film, not just for her biting comedic delivery, but the underlying poignancy of her condition. The back-and-forth between April's crises and her mother's insufferable car trip keep things moving quick enough that the movie breezes by, and when the family finally arrives, the efficiency which director/writer Peter Hedges ties it all together nearly steals the show itself.--Mike Prevatt

Blue balls

If it wasn't already made painfully obvious by its name, The Big Empty goes to great lengths to indicate that John Person (Jon Favreau) is a normal, everyday, average guy. He is the 21st century Everyman--not too bright, not real successful, not very attractive and not much of a ladies' man--and nearly everyone stops to observe his plainness.

Of course, this normalcy is thrown into turmoil when Person's shady neighbor Neely (Bud Cort) offers him $25,000 to drive a mysterious blue suitcase to Baker, Calif., and give it to a trucker named Cowboy. After a funny exchange about Person's sexual routines--"This morning, you lay on this very floor masturbating into a sock"--the two strike a deal and Person sets off in his Volkswagen (the people's car, of course) with the case and Neely's pistol.

From there, everything just gets bizarre. In Baker, Person misses Cowboy but crosses paths with a porn-happy motel clerk (Jon Gries), a local Lolita with a taste for whipped cream and Jack Daniels (Rachel Leigh Cook), her psychotic boyfriend (Adam Beach) and a town consumed by theories about UFOs and extraterrestrial sperm harvests. He also discovers that Neely's been decapitated and Cowboy may either be a British serial killer or something altogether more alien.

If this sounds like David Lynch's adaptation of Carl Sagan's take on an Elmore Leonard novel, it most certainly is not. The plot may be unusual, but it has neither Lynch's complexity nor Sagan's depth nor Leonard's charm. Instead, The Big Empty feels formulaic--weirdness for the sake of weirdness. And if you can figure out the ending--a bizarre scene involving a blue bowling ball rolling across the desert--you're smarter than I am.--Newt Briggs


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