Billy Bob Thornton and Laura Dern are a dysfunctional Southern couple, from decidedly dysfunctional families in this comedy that was also written and directed by Thornton.
My first thought watching the opening scene of Daddy and Them was that even though it is mildly amusing the way Thornton and Dern bicker, and even though Dern is quite good at playing this type of role, it seems kind of a tired stereotype to make Southerners ignorant rednecks for humor purposes. From early on it’s clear that Dern is both a moron, and unstable bordering on insane, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch an hour or two of that caricature.
I also struggled for a while with the fact that the story in this movie is so thin. It’s nominally about Thornton’s uncle being arrested for attempted murder, but that story develops at a glacial pace. The movie is really just about spending time with all these kooky hillbillies and seeing them fight with each other, and again I wasn’t sure I was up for an hour and a half of that rather than something with more of a story.
But the deeper I got into Daddy and Them, the more it won me over and overcame both of these issues. There are enough classic characters, oddball situations, and good lines to have given me more than the usual quantity and quality of laughs in a comedy of this length. Not everything scores, but plenty does.
Among the highlights: Andy Griffith as Thornton’s father. The dancing monkey centerpiece. Much of the dialogue between the battling Thornton and Dern, including “I can’t even have a head-on collision in peace!”
Purely as a comedy, this movie’s good enough for at least a mild recommendation. But when it finally gets around to having some more serious moments, it scores additional points.
It’s almost like those moments sneak up on you. Around the middle of the movie, Griffith strikes up a conversation with a young man in a wheelchair outside the courtroom. You’re expecting a punch line or something zany to happen at any moment, since nothing in the movie so far would lead you to expect anything else, but instead it’s a really nice, serious moment with some depth. There’s no gag at all, and it has no real place in the story. But it works.
Later, when Thornton and Dern—with a little nudge from Thornton’s peculiar brother—come to appreciate each other after all, there are some sweet moments between them. This part maybe goes on a little longer than it needs to, but I appreciated the tenderness and was glad the film found a way to celebrate the obvious love between these characters in a way that was neither too hokey nor felt like a perfunctory non-comic happy ending grafted onto a comedy.
Daddy and Them is a well-acted, well-written, solid comedy, with some bonus serious material.