Daddy And Them

on October 26, 2001 by Susan Green
   The Southern-white-trash genre is alive and unwell in the hands of Billy Bob Thornton, who attempts to pay homage to his native Arkansas in the messy, occasionally sweet, mostly revolting "Daddy and Them." As writer, director and lead actor, he might have lost sight of the need to keep this a vanity project from becoming too self-indulgent. The film starts to fall apart the moment he introduces the ever-bickering Claude and Ruby (himself and Laura Dern), an annoyingly insecure married couple who drive each other crazy with jealousy. They travel from their suburban home in a car with her irritatingly sadistic mother and sister (Diane Ladd and Kelly Preston) to visit his relatives in Little Rock. Needless to say, those kinfolk are rather exasperating as well.

   The trip is prompted by news that Uncle Hazel (the late Jim Varney) has been jailed for armed robbery. The charge is actually attempted murder, but Claude's father (Andy Griffith) sugar-coated the crime over the phone. His wife Elbe (Sandra Seacat) is almost catatonic and two other sons (one of whom is singer/songwriter John Prine) are basket cases, one an alcoholic and the other an introverted bookworm. Improbably, Hazel's British wife (Brenda Blethyn, who ought to know better) is a psychologist. The husband-and-wife defense lawyers they've hired are another squabbling pair played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Ben Affleck. This showdown at Dysfunction Junction is enervating.

   There's not much plot, just a series of jokey set-ups. Claude and his brothers fill a shopping cart with booze at a local liquor store. Ha ha. They crash en route to a bar because the inebriated driver has reached for a Molly Hatchett tape on the car floor while driving. Big yuks. The nicest moments come at the very end. When Ruby and her mate have a quiet romantic talk, the film finally seems bearable. Ditto for the John Prine tune that's heard over the closing credits, a scabrous but really catchy duet he sings with Iris Dement.    Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Kelly Preston, Andy Griffith, Ben Affleck, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Prine, Brenda Blethyn, Jim Varney and Sandra Seacat. Directed and written by Billy Bob Thornton. Produced by J. Geyer Kosinski, Larry Meistrich and Robert Salerno. A Miramax release. Rated R for strong language. Running time: 103 min.

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