Family Values

Jones and Duvall make a tale of two brothers a tale to remember

And that's when A Family Thing reaches another point at which the people who made it and the people watching it consider the same burning question: where do we go from here?

It requires a fair amount of heavy lifting for the filmmakers to keep these bound-by-blood strangers together. First, Earl has to get beaten by street thugs, who steal his truck. And then, after a brief period of convalescence at Ray's cramped but comfortable home, Earl has to go on a bender, just to give the two men space enough to realize they would like to spend more time together. Here and elsewhere in A Family Thing, the grinding of plot mechanics is a shade too obvious. But think of it as a tradeoff: this is what you have to put up with to remain in the company of some fascinating characters.

It has been much too long since Jones had a movie role as substantial as Ray Murdoch, a part that allows him to fill the screen with the full force of his booming, bearish charisma. This time, the boom is more of a purr, occasionally slowed down with a slight stammer. (A nice touch: the stutter, wisely underplayed, gives the physically intimidating Jones an engaging touch of vulnerability.) But the full force of Ray's painfully conflicted feelings -- resentment, anger, compassion, sorrow -- comes through in an affectingly vivid yet beautifully restrained performance.

To watch Earl and Ray slowly evolve from wary antagonism to budding friendship is to watch two marvelous actors infuse a potentially hokey contrivance with a resounding emotional truth. Yes, you know right from the start that these two characters will somehow manage to reach across the barriers that separate them. But Jones and Duvall are such unfailingly honest actors that they fully persuade you that it's an uphill struggle for these guys to reach common ground.

Then there's Irma P. Hall. As Aunt T., the blind octogenarian who reared Ray and now lives in his house, Hall is richly amusing and exuberantly sassy in a role that calls for her to serve as sounding board, peacemaker and blunt-spoken sage all at once. To be sure, the role may be a cliché, but Hall, a Beaumont native who once operated the Dallas Minority Repertory Theatre, is vigorously cantankerous enough, and bountifully maternal enough, to turn the cliché into a fully rounded, flesh-and-blood human being. When she talks, others can't help but listen.

As the closing credits begin, Pearce cuts away from Duvall and Jones to show Aunt T. once again tapping her way down the street toward the grocery store. For a while, it seems as though Pearce is setting us up for some final gag, or an epiphany of some sort. But then it becomes clear that he simply wants to spend a little more time with this character. So do we. In fact, it would be great to see all these characters again, to see how Earl's family responds to the news about his half-brother. If Duvall, Jones and Hall are willing to make a sequel, I'm more than willing to see it.

A Family Thing. Directed by Richard Pearce. With James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall. Rated PG-13. 109 minutes.

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