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A patchwork quilt can be a beautiful thing, but a patchwork movie is a more iffy proposition. Unfortunately, "How To Make an American Quilt," constructed of bits and pieces of its characters' lives, never quite comes together, despite a few charming moments.

The story focuses on 26-year-old Berkeley student Finn (Winona Ryder), who is having trouble getting her graduate thesis together. She's having even more trouble committing to her boyfriend Sam (Dermot Mulroney), who has just proposed.Finn's waffling on the marriage issue is understandable, however, since her parents (Kate Capshaw, Adam Baldwin) are free-spirited hippies whose string of unsuccessful relationships have left Finn wondering if monogamy is feasible, much less sensible.

So, she decides to get away from it all for the summer by taking up residence in the home of her great aunt Glady Joe (Anne Bancroft), who lives among the orange groves in the small town of Grasse, Calif. Finn's grandmother Hy (Ellen Burstyn) also lives there, and Finn hopes the surroundings will inspire her to finish her thesis and that Hy, Glady Joe and the other women of their quilting bee (Maya Angelou, Alfre Woodard, Jean Simmons, Kate Nelligan and Lois Smith) will help be a calming influence as she tries to decide if marrying Sam is what she really wants to do.

But, as you might suspect, she instead encounters plenty of distractions. And not just because she has a fling with a local hunk. Finn also gets loads of advice from each of these older women, who are working together on her "wedding quilt." But the advice doesn't seem to have all that much wisdom attached. And in the end, the film's conclusions about love, relationships and marriage are, to say the least, quite conflicting.

In flashbacks that reveal bits and pieces of their younger lives, which are linked to each woman's individual portion of the quilt, we discover that each has had her heart broken by some faithless male. (The quilt's theme is "Where love resides," but it might as well be "Men are pigs.")

This makes Finn even more skittish about marriage, and when Sam pays an unexpected visit, she bites his head off. So, she listens to more stories from the quilters and gets really confused.

To keep from giving away too much, let's just say that the film's conclusion is a muddled mess of mixed messages, and the ending doesn't seem to validate what has gone before.

The film's strangest moment, however, is an unintentional one that comes in the final scene, as Finn demonstrates a lack of respect for the finished quilt. She wraps it around herself, goes outdoors and heads down a dirty, muddy road. I was waiting for one of the older women to see her and scream.

The players, of course, are quite wonderful (others include Rip Torn, Samantha Mathis, Loren Dean and Claire Danes) - and they are the main reason to see the film. Except for Ryder, however, no one is given enough screen time to fully develop their characters.

And, as usual, Hollywood's vision of middle America is rather skewed. To demonstrate that Bancroft and Burstyn's 70ish characters are smart, hip and up to date, despite getting on in years, the script requires them to sing a 30-year-old Neil Diamond song and to sit around smoking marijuana. Right.

"How To Make an American Quilt" is rated PG-13 for sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity and drugs.