2013, R, 111 mins.
2013, R, 111 mins.
Robert De Niro as Fred Blake / Giovanni Manzoni / Michelle Pfeiffer as Maggie Blake / Tommy Lee Jones / Dianna Agron as Bella Blake / John D'Leo as Warren Blake / Vincent Pastore as Fat Willy / Joseph Perrino as Joey / Paul Borghese as Albert / Jimmy Palumbo as DiCicco / Kresh Novakovic as Vincenze
Directed by Luc Besson / Written by Besson and Michael Caleo
Luc Besson has
spent an awful lot of time writing and producing action films as of late
(the TAKEN and THE TRANSPORTER franchises come
immediately to mind), so it was with great anticipation that I looked
forward to THE FAMILY, a surprisingly sly, impeccably cast, well
performed, and mostly enjoyable action comedy from the French director.
The premise of the film is kind of appealing, in an off-kilter kind
of way: A former Mafioso and his family enter the Witness Protection
Program and are secretly displaced to – ahem! – Normandy, France,
where all sorts of culture clashes ensue.
a fish-of-of-water comedy (based on the novel MALAVITA by Tonino
Benacquista), THE FAMILY hits perfunctory, but frequently amusing
beats. However, its real coup de grace is that it has ample fun at the expense of
star Robert De Niro’s resume. It
winks – in both subtle and remarkably broad ways – at the star’s
past mob-centric roles and provides the actor with his juiciest and
funniest comedic role since 1999’s ANALYZE THIS (yet another comedy that
cheekily referenced De Niro’s lauded career playing wiseguys).
It could be said that De Niro has certainly given some stiff and
uninspired paycheck grabbing performances in comedies as of late, but in
THE FAMILY he seems looser and less constrained by the material.
That, and he gets to work off of a spirited and well-assembled cast
that includes multiple Oscar winners and nominees.
Even when the writing here takes some jarring tonal shifts and
becomes a bit muddled and uneven as it progresses, we are nonetheless left
with very inspired actors that bring their A-game with a relishing aplomb.
In actuality, De
Niro is playing a character that just as easily could have occupied any
other serious minded mob film. In
THE FAMILY he plays Giovanni Manzoni, a former tough-as-nails, ruthless,
but fair (in his mind) mob boss that snitched on his superiors and now
finds himself and his family in the Witness Protection Program, overseen
by the unflappable and by-the-books Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).
The agent decides that the best course of action is to send the
family all the way overseas to France, where they will hopefully not
attract too much undo attention to themselves.
The Manzoni family changes their names (they are now the Blakes)
and Giovanni (now known as Fred) decides to spend his time writing his
memoirs, but his cover within a cover is that he’s a history author
working on a WWII novel.
The rest of
Giovanni’s clan seems to adjust – as only they know how – to their
new foreign surroundings. His
wife Maggie (a wonderfully sassy Michelle Pfeiffer) seems somewhat
dejected in her new country, whereas the kids, Bella (Dianna Argon) and
Warren (John D’Leo) try to deal with everyday social and peer pressure
at their new school, but in ways that only a mob boss’ kids know how
(she manages to make use of a tennis racket in ways not appropriate to
deal with the sexual advances of a few ogling school boys).
Giovanni himself is not beneath going back to his roots, so to
speak, when it comes to dealing with ill mannered people that he feels have
disrespected him. In one hysterical and macabre sequence, he grabs a baseball bat to
deal with a rather repugnant plumber, which will have all cinemaphiles
grinning at the reference to his role of Al Capone in THE UNTOUCHABLES.
Unavoidably, though, Giovanni’s past does come back to haunt him
and his family, as old crime bosses back home discover his location and send
in a squad of hitmen to whack them all.
I liked the whole
tableau that THE FAMILY rests on; It’s kind of intriguing –
initially at least – to see the Blakes try as they may to acclimatize
themselves to Normandy life, and the film displays great merriment in dealing with
their attempts to go straight. To
be fair, Besson also sets his satiric crosshairs not only at mob film
genre staples, but also on French customs and manners, which gives the
film a balanced approach to the laughs and its intended targets.
I also appreciated how THE FAMILY never once shies away from De
Niro’s legendary and iconic catalogue of great gangster films.
No more is this driven home then when Giovanni agrees to attend a
local film festival screening/debate of Vincente Minnelli’s SOME CAME
RUNNING. When he arrives the
audience is told that the print to the Frank Sinatra starring film was not sent
properly and that…yes…Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS
arrived by mistake. Perhaps
too on the nose? Yup.
Yet, it makes for the film’s best comedic setup and laugh.
by the cast are perhaps the biggest breath of fresh air in the production.
De Niro can clearly play these roles in his proverbial sleep, but
his natural and wonderfully unforced chemistry with Michelle Pfeiffer helps
elevate his work beyond the phoned-in status.
Pfeiffer is also no stranger to mob roles (remember MARRIED TO THE
MOB way back when?), and she has an impeccable knack here for black comedy and
lends a subversive edge to her gangster wife role that we have not
seen from the ageless beauty in an awfully long time.
Tommy Lee Jones brings is trademark level-headed and stoic bravado
to his role and it’s a real treat to see heavyweight acting talents like
him and De Niro share scenes together.
Even the work by Diana Agron and John D’Leo is thanklessly
strong. D’Leo has a
razor sharp delivery playing his adolescent hustler, and the unendingly
photogenic Agron displays an unhealthy predilection towards violence as
Bella...even when she struggles with love and chastity.
The daughter role here is far better written and realized than
THE FAMILY does
take a few regrettable missteps along the way, like the fact that there
are times when Besson can’t seem to decide whether or not to hone in on
the film’s farcical undertones or the blood curdling action or the
dramatic pathos of the characters (a subplot involving Bella and
her attraction to a Math tutor seems lifted from a whole other film
altogether). The finale of
the film, which definitely amps up the action to borderline cartoony
levels, is both exhilarating and a bit too drawn out for its own good.
Besson still has a great faculty, in all fairness, to harness stylish
and graceful action sequences, but perhaps is not known
for refined and well articulated comedy.
This shows at times in THE FAMILY, which probably would have been
that much better if it squarely centered on being an all-out farce, but
instead seems to have a genuine personality disorder.
Still, there’s sublime pleasure in witnessing a seasoned and well-oiled De Niro and Pfeiffer occupying the screen together and THE FAMILY enjoys taking an overly familiar setup and injects some deliciously pointed and amusingly obvious odes to the classic De Niro genre films of old…and it never holds back. Is this a bravura genre satire? Forget about it! Alas, does THE FAMILY get the intended job done? Absolutely.