A Family Thing (Richard Pearce)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

The ads and trailers for A Family Thing made the film look earnest and predictable, like a Hallmark Hall of Fame remake of Soul Man, so I didn't bother to see it when it was initially released about three months ago, in spite of numerous mildly positive reviews and my admiration for its leading actors, Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones. When it turned up at my local discount theater recently, and I noticed it staring balefully at me from the newspaper listings, yearning for recognition, I decided to give it a chance, and discovered that it is, in fact, earnest and predictable, as well as contrived. It is also sensationally acted, expertly written (apart from the necessary contrivances), and genuinely moving. I had forgotten, in particular, how remarkable Duvall can be when he's given strong material; after enduring numerous recent cantankerous Duvall characters in movies like The Paper, Falling Down, The Handmaid's Tale, Days of Thundar [sic -- inside joke], etc., it was a pleasure to see him tackle a complex, challenging role again. Jones is equally good in a performance that reminded me, believe it or not, of Julianne Moore's stunning Yelena in Vanya on 42nd Street -- both characters movingly demonstrate that one can smile, and smile, and be a basketcase. The script was written by Billy Bob Thornton & Tom Epperson, who previously penned the equally precise One False Move; the pair have a terrific way with naturalistic dialogue and an uncanny ability to make clichés seem fresh and insightful. Leisurely paced and proudly sentimental, A Family Thing reminded me of what a good weepie oughta be (hint: omit the cloying, pushy orchestral score). I'm glad that I caught up with it.