A Family Thing

on March 29, 1996 by Carole Glines
"A Family Thing" offers the improbable concept that Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones are long-lost brothers with such heart and humor that you look beyond the actors' obvious physical differences--said differences far more than one being white and the other black. As the oddest-looking brothers since Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger, nonetheless the actors make you feel their characters' connection in delightful ways; as the movie progresses, their physiques are almost beside the point. It's a darn good "acting thing."

"A Family Thing" opens with Southern redneck Earl Pilcher Jr. (Duvall) shocked to learn from his late mother's letter that he's really the product of his father's affair with a black woman. To fulfill the dying wish of the woman who raised him as her own son, Earl heads north to find his black half-brother Ray Murdock (Jones), a Chicago policeman. Ray gives Earl a frosty reception (their mutual mother died giving birth to Earl), but after the Southerner is beaten by some gangbangers he reluctantly comes to his aid. Ray entrusts Earl to the care of his blind Aunt T. (Irma P. Hall); through her love, both men come to realize they have to cross the racial barriers and unite as a family.

Duvall and Jones are in top form. Duvall is touching in his journey from racist good ol' boy to a man proud of his black heritage. He commands the screen whether he's angrily confronting his father or simply lying in a gutter. Jones, usually wasted in too-small parts, gets the time to shine as an outwardly tough but inwardly vulnerable man. His convincing stutter is no gimmick; press notes reveal that Jones--the famous bass voice of Darth Vader--incorporated his real-life impediment into the role. The supporting cast matches them in excellence. Irma P. Hall gives an extraordinary performance as a feisty blind lady who opens the men's eyes on how to live life. An amusing grocery shopping trip with Earl, in which Aunt T. orders him to take specific items from the shelves, is one of the film's humorous highlights. Michael Beach is also first-rate as Jones' surly son Virgil.

The screenplay by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, who previously collaborated on 1992's "One False Move," allows all the actors to stretch in both dramatic and comedic ways. Although the main topic is a serious one, these skillful scripters aren't afraid to blend in droll dialogue for their leads. They let us spend quality time with these men, and that's exactly what we want to do. Starring Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones and Irma P. Hall. Directed by Richard Pearce. Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson. Produced by Robert Duvall, Todd Black and Randa Haines. A UA release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, brief violence and a childbirth scene. Running time: 109 min

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