Luc Besson, Michael Caleo (Book: Tonino Benacquista)
Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Tommy Lee Jones, Jimmy Palumbo, Domenick Lombardozzi, Stan Carp, Vincent Pastore, Jon Freda
R for violence, language and brief sexuality
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Old habits are hard to break. For a former member of the mafia forced into witness relocation with his family, trying to blend into normal, everyday society is a challenge when old habits resurface. The Family‘s obvious double meaning falls perfectly in line with the film’s entirely homogenous comedy twist on the genre.
There’s a fascination with mob films that has so permeated our society that common stereotypes and expectations pervasively seep into every product made that focuses itself in that milieu. The Family is absolutely no different, mining the same empty mineshafts hoping for nuggets no one else has found. Luc Besson, who has toyed with crime films and action dramas for three decades, still continues trying to spin the genre tropes in new directions.
After almost two decades of avoiding action narratives, Besson makes his return with a little rust on the hinges of his director’s chair. In trying to find a unique story to tell, Besson and co-writer Michael Caleo built their crime comedy around a family so inept at blending in that their exasperated CIA handler (Tommy Lee Jones) is constantly having to clean up their messes and move them to new and safer digs.
Robert De Niro stars as Giovanni Manzoni, a former high-ranking member of a prominent mafia family who finds life in witness protection difficult. Under the psuedonym Fred Blake, he and his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and children Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo) have moved to Normandy, France to settle into another new life. Posing as a writer, Giovanni begins work on his memoirs, a collection of stories that could cause him even more trouble with the mob, even his own former family.
While Giovanni seems mostly content stuck within the compound to avoid identification, his wife and kids aren’t adjusting terribly well. Taking insult from a the denizens of a small grocery store, Maggie sets an explosion to blow up the place. Belle falls in love with a substitute math teacher, trying to seduce him even though he seems unaware she event exists while beating the crap out of a group of horny high schoolers wanting to have their way with her whether she wants it or not. Meanwhile, Warren sets up a series of events at his new school, becoming a kingpin of his own in the school.
As the Blakes begin to settle in and curb their urges, things begin going well for them and a life in solitude might not be as bad as they believe. Of course, it doesn’t take long before the expected hook of discovery begins interfering with their plans, but a resourceful lot this family is and, together, they move into survival mode and the sometimes humorous fish-out-of-water saga turns into an action dramedy with little sense of perspective and no appreciation for subtlety.
Outside of his work with David O. Russell, De Niro has appeared to have squandered the years of good will he generated with mesmerizing performances in everything from Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to Goodfellas. Once one of our great dramatic actors seemed to have found money in comedy and hasn’t been terribly interested in branching out since. While this underwritten role is nothing De Niro couldn’t do in his sleep, it’s a nice diversion from his recent spate of generic performances. This isn’t Shakespeare, but it’s nice to see the charismatic De Niro we once loved.
Pfeiffer has likewise struggled to find great roles. Whether her age or her lack of desire, she has played nearly the same character in every film for the last few years with minor variants to each. She doesn’t give us anything new in The Family, but her bond and balance with De Niro make it seem like far more satisfying work than what we’ve otherwise come to expect.
Agron is satisfactory and D’Leo is weak, but the rest of the cast takes what they’re given and do their best with the material. Whether Besson has run out of ideas or is simply trying to put money in the bank before his next passion project is uncertain, but The Family certainly feels like a work for hire with few flourishes, plenty of regurgitation and some bits dialogue that could have been written by Michael Bay. It’s a fractured film with minimal forward momentum and no sense of perspective. Expected reminders of the mafia past are frequent, but don’t make for great sreenwriting. The action is occasionally engaging, but largely rote.
The Family is a movie that’s best saved for family night at home where you can pause or fast forward when the film gets in its own way. It’s a diverting trifle that might appeal best to those unfamiliar with the work of its stars or director, but for the rest of us, it’s a tough film to sit through without becoming disappointed at regular intervals.
May 12, 2014