Probing the Lives of 'Ordinary' Folks

'A Family Thing' and 'Carried Away' portray characters grappling with everyday issues

It's always refreshing when Hollywood looks beyond its preoccupations with action, fantasy, and movie-star glamour, focusing instead on ordinary people in the modest communities where most folks really live.

Two new pictures do just that, but with such different levels of quality and interest that moviegoers won't have trouble deciding which is more worth seeing.

"A Family Thing" begins in an Arkansas town where a middle-aged man named Earl Pilcher runs a small business, spends his spare time with friends and relations, and passes his days much as middle-class white Southerners have done for generations.

His life changes abruptly when he receives a letter written by his recently deceased mother - revealing that she was not his biological mother at all, but raised him after his actual mother died in childbirth. Earl is stunned to discover he's the product of an affair between his father and a woman he never knew. He's even more stunned to learn that his mother was black.

Driven by a mixture of curiosity and anxiety, he gets into his pickup truck and heads for the crowded streets of Chicago, looking for a black half-brother named Ray Murdock who may shed light on his unexpectedly tangled roots. Ray turns out to be a hard-working cop with a good job, a nice family, and more knowledge of Earl's background than Earl himself has. Soon the two are locked in a love-hate relationship, complicated by the difficulty Earl has absorbing the idea that he's not as white as the good old boys he grew up with.

"A Family Thing" presents some high drama (and harrowing violence) as Earl navigates the streets of a city that's scarily unfamiliar to him. But the story moves into a surprisingly low key once he finds his brother and moves temporarily into the little home Ray shares with his feisty old aunt and recently divorced son. Since the film concentrates on character more than plot, it's fortunate that the main characters are played with tremendous insight by Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones, who bring out all the doubts, confusions, and uncertainties of Earl and Ray without once lapsing into melodramatics or scenery-chewing ostentation.

Duvall does the most memorable acting, partly because the screenplay gives him juicier material, but also because he's capable of making even the simplest scenes - like the reading of his mother's letter, a masterpiece of barely suppressed feelings - into a fine display of intelligence and sensitivity. Jones is equally effective when the movie gives him free reign, and his portion of the film is vividly fleshed out by gifted supporting players like Irma P. Hall as the aunt and Michael Beach as the discontented son.

Not every scene in "A Family Thing" rings true - at a moment when Ray pulls a gun, for instance, the picture veers close to macho posturing - but in most respects the drama is emotionally riveting. Its moral stance is richly constructive, too, showing how the claims of racist thinking lose their credibility as soon as people recognize how arbitrary and artificial they are. The movie was directed by Richard Pearce, whose credits include "Country" and "The Long Walk Home," which also have a strong moral dimension, although they're less successfully made. Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson wrote the screenplay.

'Carried Away" is more problematic, even though it also paints a compassionate portrait of an ordinary man facing midlife challenges in a rural community. His name is Joseph, and he's been a schoolteacher since a long-ago accident put hard physical work beyond his grasp. He divides his spare time between caring for his elderly mother and carrying on a quiet love affair with Rosealee, a widow who also teaches at the local school.

Their routines are disrupted by the arrival of Catherine, a 17-year-old student who seduces Joseph into a flagrantly sexual relationship. Other characters include Catherine's father and mother, whose troubled marriage is probably to blame for her out-of-kilter attitudes, and a friendly physician who tries to keep his neighbors on an even keel.

"Carried Away" paints a well-meaning portrait of Joseph, a talented man whose life has not measured up to his abilities. It does the same for Rosealee, who's also stuck in circumstances quite different from those she hoped for in her youth. Dennis Hopper brings Joseph poignantly to life in one of the best performances of his remarkable career, and Amy Irving is softly persuasive as Rosealee, his companion. Backing up their excellent work are Amy Locane as the teenage girl, Gary Busey as her father, Hal Holbrook as the doctor, and Julie Harris as Joseph's mother.

What's regrettable about "Carried Away" is that its producers have chosen to make some of the scenes (mostly between Joseph and Catherine) into R-rated displays of nudity and sexuality, certain to repel many moviegoers who would treasure other aspects of the picture, such as its excellent acting and its theme of a mature couple (Joseph and Rosealee) who gradually deepen their relationship.

The movie was directed by Bruno Barreto, a respected Brazilian filmmaker whose best-known work - "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" - indulged similar tendencies. Too bad he didn't approach his new project with more awareness of how jarring audiences may find his head-on collisions between the sensitive and the sensual.

"Carried Away" and "A Family Thing" both aim to create absorbing pictures of everyday people in everyday places. But there's no question as to which film will appeal most to moviegoers.

'A Family Thing' is rated PG-13, reflecting some violence and foul language as well as a childbirth scene. 'Carried Away' is rated R, reflecting graphic sex, nudity, and vulgar language.

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