Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

“At three o’clock in the morning,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence…and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” He wasn’t talking about cinema, of course, but the difference between Pieces of April and Sylvia, both films about suffering women, lies in that figurative parcel. In a contest for sympathy, a suicidal poet with golden curls should hands-down beat an estranged, punked-out daughter who can’t cook. One’s situation is clinical, exacerbated by a cheating husband and a lack of career success; the other’s, as indicated by her ripped clothes and tattoos, was likely brought on by herself. But for all of the real Sylvia Plath’s profound and public pain, onscreen, it’s the fictional April Burns who’s having the real dark night of the soul.

April the Screwup (Katie Holmes) has invited her middle-class family over to her scruffy New York walk-up for Thanksgiving dinner. Her boyfriend, Bobby (Antwone Fisher’s Derek Luke), has to drag her kicking and screaming out of bed. Her family—Dad, Mom, Brother, Sister, and, of course, crazy Grandma—doesn’t really want to go, confident that the black sheep will do everything wrong. So why is April even bothering? It’s no big secret: Her mother, Joy (Patricia Clarkson), is dying of breast cancer.

Those holding their breath to see how Holmes, who cut her teeth on television, performs in her first leading film role should know that Pieces of April isn’t exactly a stretch—much of it is a big-screen sitcom. The bulk of writer-director Peter Hedges’ story is all anticipation, alternating between April’s dinner preparations and the family’s daylong car ride. Many of the jokes are as tired as Thanksgiving leftovers: A slippery turkey is dropped, cranberry sauce gloops out of the can, potatoes are mashed before they’re cooked. Her neighbors are caricatures: a black woman who insists a young white girl can’t have problems, a Chinese couple who don’t speak English, a weird, nattily dressed man who carries his dog around (Sean Hayes, channeling a 70-year-old Southern Lit professor). On the road, a run-over squirrel gets an impromptu funeral, complete with eulogy. Grandma may not know what’s going on, but Hedges, scripter of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and About a Boy, should know better.

Hedges attempts to imbue the role of April’s mother with freshness and edge, but the character carries the movie past Home for the Holidays dysfunction into Grinchian vitriol. Ironically named, Joy is pure hate, the ringleader in the April Sucks! campaign. The first one in the car, she makes it clear throughout the trip that she expects to have an awful time. Clarkson ably taps into her inner witch and is the best source of laughs as Joy gleefully spreads malevolence—randomly flipping off passing cars, for instance—but it’s disquieting to witness a mother who is still angry that her daughter “bit my nipples whenever I tried to breast-feed.”

Despite its shaky lead-in (a quality enhanced by the fact that the film was shoton digital video), however, Pieces of April sucker-punches you just as you’re about to write it off. April may be painted as flawed to the extreme, but unlike Joy, she tempers her bitterness toward her family with a discernible sadness and still-flickering hope for reconciliation. Holmes, underneath all the makeup, can’t help but bring her usual sweetness to the walking-wounded April. Even if you can’t quite believe it when she says that, as a child, she was told special salt and pepper shakers were “worth more than you are,” her genuine effort to play nice makes a setback such as a nonworking oven seem like a death sentence. And as clichéd as the buildup is, the film’s intimate camerawork and almost minute-by-minute attention to the day’s details elicit a surprising emotional payoff. Like a just-finished holiday feast with the fam, Pieces of April somehow makes the preceding drudgery seem worth it.

Plath’s torture went deeper than a philandering husband and occasional writer’s block, but you wouldn’t know that by watching Sylvia. As written by first-time scripter John Brownlow, the suicide of a well-respected and deeply mourned American writer seems much ado about nothing.

Sylvia begins in 1956 in England, where Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) is studying on a Fulbright fellowship. Shortly after reading and becoming enraptured by the poetry of Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig), she meets and falls in love with the man himself. The portrayal of their early relationship is understandably brief, jumping from first kiss to marriage in minutes—a fitting reflection of their whirlwind courtship. (Plath and Hughes married after knowing each other only four months.)

This sketched-in depiction, however, continues throughout the film: The couple change jobs and residences without ever seeming to look for them, babies appear out of nowhere, and Hughes turns from smitten to uninterested overnight. The only detail that’s attended to in any depth—Plath’s inability to write after settling down, which she compensates for by filling the house with cakes and pies—culminates not in a demonstrated flurry of inspiration but in the miraculous appearance of her first published book, The Colossus.

Paltrow is uneven in her portrayal of the mythical writer. Sweater sets and sculpted tresses are not enough to return to the actress the blank-slate anonymity she enjoyed in Emma, in which her not-yet-famous cheekbones more easily took on an already-familiar character. Paltrow’s flat, low voice sounds absurd reciting poetry, especially the angry “Daddy,” and when she first answers Hughes’ query of “Who the hell are you?” with “I’m Sylvia Plath,” you can’t help but think, No, you’re not.

Perhaps the filmmakers sensed this: Paltrow changes hairstyles way more often than most depressives could manage—a point that would be distracting in any two-hour movie but rings especially untrue here. For all of Plath’s well-documented battles with clinical depression, Sylvia suggests that she has nothing more than the blues, with an occasional dose of the mean reds. Paltrow is always put together, and her character, save for a scene or two, is never seen languishing. Instead there are scenes of Plath staring out the window, tearing up unidentified papers, or checking her watch, all while violins—tons of ’em, always plaintive—supply a constant and eventually irritating soundtrack.

To be fair, Paltrow does well with the few meaty moments she’s given, showing a legitimate helplessness when she knocks on a neighbor’s door during a breakdown and hissing a Joan Crawford-worthy “I see you!” to her flirting husband while out of their dinner guests’ range. But one of the film’s final moments typifies the failed attempts at cinematic poetry that came before it: When Plath is about to give up her life, light floods around Paltrow’s concave cheeks and widening eyes and leaves her looking less like a tormented angel and more like…Shelley Duvall, circa The Shining. The laughable image proves that though Pieces of April is this week’s Thanksgiving film, it’s Sylvia that offers the half-baked turkey. CP