(From For the Record, Saturday, March 30, 1996:) James Earl Jones is pictured with Robert Duvall from the film “A Family Thing” in Friday’s Weekend magazine. The caption misidentified Jones.
Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones share an emotional scene at the end of “A Family Thing,” but like everything else in this fine, gently comic movie, it is underplayed. Instead of grabbing each other in a teary hug, they share a bump of bourbon and comment favorably on the weather.
The atmosphere of “A Family Thing” is Southern (Duvall plays an Arkansan) - it’s the kind of world where, if someone asks you how you’re doing, the correct response is, “Tolerable, I reckon.” Duvall plays a man who learns he has a brother, that the brother may live in Chicago and that he is black. Duvall heads for Chicago, but he has no idea what will happen when he gets there, and the great thing about “A Family Thing” is that neither do we.
Mostly, it’s a movie about character. The ingratiating Duvall and the suspicious Jones are very different men, but they share a lot, too, and we’re eager to see if they will manage to find each other in themselves. There’s a third major character, Jones’ Aunt T, a formidable woman who knows that age has its privileges and who intends to enjoy every one of them.
The blind Aunt T (Irma P. Hall) tells Jones, “I don’t have the blessing of being able to separate people by looking at them,” and that is the movie’s simple message. What makes it so good - and what makes it a movie that white and black audiences will enjoy equally - is that its low-key humor comes out of situations that feel real.
When Jones needles Duvall about his father, who has done Jones wrong, Duvall threatens, “If I were you, I wouldn’t talk about my daddy that way,” and Jones replies, “If you were me, I think you would.” There’s lots of smart dialogue like that, and there’s also a breathtakingly delicate scene in which Duvall reads a letter filled with upsetting news that is told in flowery, hilarious language. Duvall plays the scene beautifully, letting us see the sadness in the humor and the comedy in the pain, which is just about the best definition of “unsentimental” I can imagine.
For once, Jones isn’t playing a saint. The actor has fun with his character’s curmudgeonliness, and when his grave, dour face splits into a wide grin, it means a lot. Best of all may be Hall, who gives the kind of brash, hilarious performance that wins awards and makes careers.
The only thing that doesn’t work in “A Family Thing” is a subplot about Jones’ son and his estranged wife. Michael Beach and Regina Taylor give loud, actory performances in these roles, but most of the time, “A Family Thing” pulls you in with the spectacle of talented actors who find a way to stop being actors and start being people.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “A FAMILY THING” Locations:Lincoln Heights and North Division Cinemas Credits: Directed by Richard Pearce; starring Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones Running time:1:51 Rating: PG-13