VULTURE DROPPINGS OF THE WEEK: Thanksgiving
It’s time once again for the weekly roundup of my favorite pop culture atrocities, misfires and entertaining trainwrecks. This week’s theme: Thanksgiving.
Like Halloween, Thanksgiving is a purely American holiday. It’s an excuse for families to gorge themselves on turkey, get plastered and then blame each other for all of life’s problems…or give thanks, I mean. It’s also a subject that Hollywood loves to tackle. What TV show hasn’t had a Thanksgiving episode? What year goes by without some lame primetime special? It’s a nice little holiday and all, but when it comes to the projects it inspires, the good ones (A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, Planes, Trains and Automobiles) are few and far between.
1. ‘ROSIE LIVE’
Two or so years after her big The View fallout and her subsequent mess of memoir, Celebrity Detox, the former Queen of Nice, Rosie O’Donnell, rolled out of exile for Rosie Live, a variety show that aired the night before Thanksgiving on the ever-struggling NBC network in 2008. It was to be a throwback to the glitzy variety shows of the past like The Carol Burnett Show. It ended up being worse than The Brady Bunch Hour. The following ill-toned promo should have been a major clue to its awfulness:
When the special finally aired, Rosie came out wearing pancake makeup and, well — to put it lightly — not at all ready for primetime. And her jokes were embarrassing. Referring to her bulging breasts, she said, “I just met them backstage”. She went on to call herself “a chubby woman in spanks” and then scream, “Obama!!!” Not even an ample amount of celebrity guests could help Rosie avert disaster (Alec Baldwin and Conan O’Brien, for one, looked like they didn’t want to be there). However awkward and unwatchable each segment was, Rosie Live‘s awfulness reached its peak in the grand finale with the song “Gonna Eat For Thanksgiving.” The showstopping number (literally) featured Gloria Estefan, Rachel Ray and a group of dancing cupcakes. You gotta see it to believe it (it’ll feel like you’re on drugs):
The next day, critics ripped the show apart. In TV Guide, Matt Roush wrote, “I miss the Rosie from the early days of her talk show, when she showcased the latest of Broadway and pop alongside show-biz legends with equal glee and reverence, before it became all about her. I was hoping Rosie Live would recapture some of that magic, but instead Rosie the egotist hogged the spotlight to everyone’s discomfort and detriment. Far from bringing the variety show back to life, Rosie stuck a fork in it, drove the last nail into its coffin, broke its back, you pick the metaphor.”
The ratings were even worse than the critical reception, leading NBC to proceed with swift action: immediate cancellation. Shortly thereafter, Rosie posted this message on her blog:
“there will b no more
yet still – a thrill 4 me”
Yeah, a thrill for her, but for the audience it was a signal to change the channel.
2. MACY’S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade first started in 1924 as a celebration of culture, diversity, art and, oh yeah, promotion. The annual spectacle features songs, dances and gigantic floats of popular cartoon characters (e.g. Snoopy) and brands (e.g. Ronald McDonald). NBC has broadcast the event every year since 1955. That means that the network has also shamelessly plugged its own programming in the parade since 1955. This year, fans of the popular comedy, Glee, were outraged when the show’s cast was banned from making an appearance for fears that it would be free promotion for the Fox network.
It might be different if you’re actually there in person, but watching the Macy’s parade on my TV screen from the comforts of my living room does not excite me in the least. It’s a bloated, overlong spectacle with very little substance and a lot of commercials. And it’s hard enough to stomach The Today Show hosts during normal weekdays, but on this special day, they are at their absolute shrillest. Between Al Roker‘s guffaws and Meredith Vieira‘s unconvincing display of wonderment after every float passes by (“Look…It’s Pokemon!”), it’s lameness is undeniable and potent. I’d rather watch Rosie Live. Wait. Maybe not. But you get the point
3. ‘PIECES OF APRIL’
The best films that use Thanksgiving as backdrop are good because they don’t focus on just one literal aspect of the holiday, but, instead, explore the larger themes of the human condition. Okay, so that sounded pretty indulgent. What I mean is – take Jodie Foster‘s Home for the Holidays for example. Holly Hunter‘s character decides to go home and visit her folks for Thanksgiving after losing her job. The film is about relationships and moving on. It feels authentic. Same with John Hughes‘ Plains, Trains and Automobiles. You’re never bored because the characters are so true and he also captures the mania of traveling during the holidays.
Peter Hedges did not take notes on those films when he wrote and directed Pieces of April. The plot is as follows: April Burns (Katie Holmes, in an overrated performance) throws together what she hopes is the perfect Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family (which includes Patricia Clarkson as the dying-of-cancer mother and Oliver Platt as her bumbling father). And that’s all there is to it.
Pieces of April is one note…and it isn’t a pleasant note. It’s also completely and utterly unbelievable. Not to mention cliched and uninspired (I may sound redundant, but I can’t emphasize these points enough).
April is the kind of movie character who has the brain of a marmaduke and the charisma of a dime store manequin. Watching her screw up the simplest tasks such as preparing the turkey for dinner is excruciating. It seems as if Hedges made April’s appearance as wacky as it can be (red hair streaks, multiple piercings, etc.) to overcompensate for her dull presence.
You basically spend the entire movie watching her set the table and the payoff at the end is not worth the wait. When promoting it on The Late Show with David Letterman, Holmes called it “a happy, soothing ending.” By that, she means predictable and unsatisfying. I, for one, felt cheated.
Hedges never fully explains why April’s family is estranged or why Clarkson is such a nasty oddball. None the drama is convincing. He must’ve thought that the Thanksgiving backdrop was enough to carry the movie. Not so. But I, inexplicably, am in the minority with this opinion. Pieces of April somehow scored an 86% on the Tomatometer. The sole voice of reason was Andrew Sarris, of the New York Observer, who commented that April is “longer on calculating sourness than on psychologically organic wit.”
I’d like to say that Hedges improved with his next directorial effort, but, well, Dan in Real Life proved to be even stupider and had even less of a plot. Maybe next time.