In A Family Thing, two middle-aged men, one white, one black, suddenly discover that they are literally brothers. It’s taken decades for Arkansas mechanic Earl Pilcher (Robert Duvall) and Chicago cop Ray Murdock (James Earl Jones) to find out that they had the same mother. Any other writers handed this premise would probably play it for cheap laughs, but Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson have made an earnest drama out of it, one lightened by a few affectionate laughs and much heartfelt sentimentality.
It’s Earl who’s told the truth first, when the white woman who raised him confides that he is actually the offspring of a white father and the family’s African-American cleaning woman. Earl drives up to Chicago to find his other family. The movie is about the ways Earl and Ray slowly, grudgingly, come to terms with this news and open themselves up to each other. Helping the process along is ancient, blind Aunt T. (Irma P. Hall, in a rascally, movie-stealing performance), who lives with Ray, dispensing endless blunt advice about life.
Thornton and Epperson, who also wrote the striking 1992 thriller One False Move, are liberal Southerners to the bone, which in this movie means that they wonder, with some eloquence, Why can’t we all just get along? The team’s dialogue is wonderfully rich with slang and detail — people tell twangy anecdotes that draw you in. Thornton and Epperson prove once again that they can write white and black characters with equal distinctiveness and complexity. But without the formal rigor of the suspense genre they tackled in One False Move, A Family Thing lacks any forward momentum. Once the premise is established, the movie just galumphs along. Indeed, there were two or three times I thought the film was winding up, only to see it lurch into another Earl-and-Ray set piece.
The acting, while always solid, is also a bit too familiar to hold us. Duvall does a Southern version of the tight-lipped stoic he played in Tender Mercies; Jones does a looser version of the friendly guy he portrays in the yellow pages commercials, right down to the straining suspenders. A Family Thing, directed by Richard Pearce (Country), is aimless, but its lack of cynicism also makes it a charming thing.