In a shocking turn of events that not even the most studied of film scholars could have predicted, Robert De Niro takes on the role of a mobster in Luc Besson’s new action/comedy, The Family, based on the French novel Malavita (published as Badfellas in North America), by Tonino Benacquista.
De Niro gets comfortable playing Gio Manzoni, a nice blend of every other gangster he’s played in his career, only in this case he’s been exiled to France after ratting out his former cronies. As the movie begins we meet Gio and his family arriving in a new village after fleeing their last witness protection location in fear of being discovered and whacked by a sort of mob hit man/P.I. who’s hot on their trail and eager to get his job done.
Gio (now going by Fred Blake), his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer paying homage to her role in Married to the Mob), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D’Leo) barrel into the tiny French hamlet near Normandy in the dead of night, arriving at their gated, numberless, crumbling chateau and set to work making themselves just about the least inconspicuous protected witnesses that the programme has probably ever seen.
Gio’s burying the bodies of people who annoy him, Maggie’s blowing up grocery stores for not carrying peanut butter (and also for being extra snooty about her terrible Français), Belle’s beating up horny teen boys for being too handsy and Warren is running his own protection racket almost as soon as he sets foot across the school threshold. Yep, the Manzonis are a full time job for their appointed FBI agent (a laconic Tommy Lee Jones) and as the mob gets closer and closer to tracking them down yet again, it becomes clear that the family is going to have to deal with the internal issues that are driving them apart before they can join forces to fight off their pursuers once and for all.
The Family is one of those films that you will sit through while barely paying attention to what’s happening in front of you. Things explode, De Niro wise guys it up, the kids pout prettily and Tommy Lee Jones scowls and looks like he’d rather be anywhere but here. There’s a bit of a plot, a minute amount of tension and some good-old fashioned head-bashing for the gore hounds. It has all the elements of what should make for an entertaining enough movie yet…it all just falls horribly flat.
Perhaps the issue lies in having Luc Besson (The Professional, The Fifth Element) at the helm. A proven talent with all things action-related, he clearly hasn’t mastered the art of the farce film. All but one of the comedic set pieces feel forced and hollow and the near constant violence and brutal deaths of innocent bystanders who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (or who happen to resemble the Manzoni family too closely) are just kind of a bummer to watch. At the very least it certainly doesn’t put anyone in the mood to be receptive to the few jokes that do hit the mark.
Thankfully the cast is extremely watchable and despite the uber-contrived material they’re given to work with, they each bring depth and even an occasional bit of pathos to their characters. It’s all for naught though, since the movie is so very tone deaf and without an ounce of awareness about which genre it wants to be part of. Also, at just under the two-hour mark, it’s simply way too long. Lopping off 20 minutes and tightening up the several meandering story threads may have gone a long way towards making The Family more fun than dysfunctional.