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A Family Thing

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: A Family Thing

Starring: Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones
Director: Richard Pearce
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 109 Minutes
Release Date: March 1996
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Michael Beach, Irma P. Hall, Grace Zabriskie, David Keith, James Harrell, Regina Taylor, Paula Marshall, Mary Jackson

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

A FAMILY THING is a poignant and beautifully life affirming film. It tells the story of the reunion of two older half-brothers, one black and one of a mixed race who always thought he was white. The film deals both with racial tolerance and with the larger meaning of life. It is a little film without any pretensions to be more that it is, and it has three outstanding performances in it. If you are lucky enough to walk into its door at the local multiplex, you will find you have discovered a small cinematic gem.

A FAMILY THING starts off in a little town in Arkansas, but that part is actually filmed in Tennessee. When I first saw the garage that Earl Pilcher, Jr., hereafter called simply Earl (Robert Duvall) and his father Earl Sr. (James Harrell) own in a small Southern town, I thought it was Shugart's Garage from my old hometown of Garland, Texas. It wasn't, but everything from the sets (Linda DeScenna) to the dialog is authentic, right down to Earl saying, "yes, sir" to his father and "yes, ma'am" to the telephone operator. Even the traditional southern inherent dislike of potential carpetbaggers is displayed in Earl Sr.'s complaining to his son about a customer, "I've never seen a damn Yankee yet that could operate more than a wheelbarrow."

At the beginning of the picture Earl's mama dies and leaves him a sealed letter revealing the family secret that his father raped a black girl and that he is the result of that rape. Earl's real mama died in childbirth, and his adoptive mama raised Earl as her own. In the letter his adoptive mama tells Earl to go to Chicago and look up his completely black half brother, Raymond "Ray" Lee Murdock (James Earl Jones) who is a policeman. Earl does this in his pickup truck which turns into a classic fish out of water sequence.

After meeting Ray, Earl ends up having to spend the night in his tiny place along with his old and blind Aunt T (Irma P. Hall) and Ray's son Virgil (Michael Beach). Ray and Earl want to part company quickly. That Ray lives near a bad part of town further complicates things.

The show has two stars and a scene stealer, Irma P. Hall, who I think is a shoe-in for a best supporting actress nomination for her bossy, funny, and upbeat role as Aunt T. She tells Earl to get salted butter because, "Don't know why anybody'd eat unsalted butter. Might as well eat Vaseline. Got about as much flavor." She is also wise telling them, "Nobody ever knows what it's like for somebody else. That's always the problem."

In another incredible performance by James Earl Jones, he plays Ray as a reserved man with deep feelings, but one that is able to laugh at others and at himself. He tells Earl, "I guess everyone is entitled to make a complete and utter fool of himself every now and then." Jones's character overflows with humanity.

In this ensemble cast, Duvall's acting is the great, although I would rank it third here. He gets off many a good line. One of my favorites has him telling Virgil about playing football in school, "I used to play a little ball. I was small, but I made up for it by being slow." As easily the slowest player on a high school football team that won two AAAA state championships, this line really hit home. Earl advises Virgil another time that, "Being happy ain't nothin' more than havin' something to look forward to." Another piece of advice well worth pondering.

The movie shows Earl as having definite racial prejudices, but milder than you might guess. He even sinks to using the N word twice which, to be fair, is a lot less that the blacks use it in the film. The script (Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson) is one of the delights of A FAMILY THING. The dialog is smart and the characters are not drawn as cliches as it would have been easy to do. In a plot where little happens, there are many surprises, scary moments, and many unpredictable twists. At its best, as when Earl and Ray share an intimate discussion about their roles in the Korean War, the story resonates with a beautiful harmony. The direction by Richard Pearce has great attention to detail. Watch, for example, the body language in the way Earl and Ray sit together on the couch and on the bed.

The movie's ending is set up perfectly, but I would have preferred them to end a couple of minutes sooner and let our imaginations take over after they set it up. The rich music by Charles Gross provides just the right nostalgic atmosphere.

A FAMILY THING runs just about right at 1:49. It is correctly rated PG-13 for a small amount of violence and some bad language. I think the film would be fine for kids over say 8 or 9 if they are interested in the subject. I loved the film and see no reason why you wouldn't too. I recommend the picture and give it ***.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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