Blood ties

Artless but sincere, A Family Thing thrives on simplicity of feeling

James Earl Jones is an imposing actor, both in body and personality, but he's cast as a dull Everyman here, and that's the wrong character for him. Like Sean Connery, he's better at larger-than-life roles--generals (The Hunt for Red October), legendary writers (Field of Dreams), or villains (the voice of Darth Vader). He seems constrained by the cramped quarters of Ray's apartment; you almost expect him to burst out of the film's frame and consume the living room in a single gulp. His performance, though consummately acted, is not entirely convincing because Jones seems vaguely out of place.

The film's best performance, though, comes from the unexpected turn by Irma P. Hall. Although Hall is only 60, she persuasively plays the blind, 88-year-old Aunt T., a woman of so forceful a personality that everyone reflexively treats her with a mix of fear, awe, and deference. Aunt T. is easily the humane conscience of the film, and as close as it comes to a narrator. Via a series of flashbacks (which, with their sepia-toned images, blur distinctions of skin color), Aunt T. provides the mechanism through which Earl and Ray undergo their respective catharses and come to a deeper emotional understanding of one another.

There's probably nothing more American than glimpsing back at your past. In having Aunt T. guide us through one such personal history, touching as it does on so many lives, you realize that the movie is as concerned with the human condition in general as it is with the specifics of its story. In that universality, A Family Thing speaks its truths with simplicity and kindness. It's enough to renew one's faith in his fellow man.

A Family Thing. United Artists. Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones, Irma P. Hall. Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson. Directed by Richard Pearce. Now showing.

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