Cast: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Vincent Pastore, Jon Freda, and Tommy Lee Jones
Written By: Luc Besson & Michael Caleo (Based on the book by Tonino Benacquista)
Directed By: Luc Besson
The Family is an odd jumble of a movie, jumping from scenes of farcical comedy to sadistic mob violence. Occasionally the two are intertwined. It’s generally fun and fitfully entertaining, but it’s also hard to overlook how ludicrous it all is. The premise of an ex-mafioso whose family is relocated under the witness protection program is an intriguing setup that could have been made into two very different movies. You could have a fish-out-of-water comedy depicting a mafia clan trying to fit into their new suburban surroundings. You could also go with a dramatic on-the-run thriller in which the family attempts to avoid being found out. The Family attempts to have it both ways, making for jarring tonal inconsistencies. That being said, the movie happens to be pretty enjoyable for the most part, but it’s also an undeniable mess.
Robert De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, a former mobster now going by Fred Blake and living in a small town in Normandy after snitching on the mob. With him is his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and teenage children Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo). Old habits die hard for this Brooklyn born and bred family who don’t have such an easy time bonding with their foreign neighbors. It’s a missed opportunity setting this movie in France, as watching these hardened Italian New Yorker’s attempting to fit in with ‘The Jones’s’ in a middle-American suburb would have paved the way for a better clash-of-the-cultures satire. Sort of like We’re the Millers, but with mobsters posing as a clean cut all-American family in lieu of pot smugglers.
An argument could be made that the Manzino’s are a family of sociopaths who resolve to violence to solve all their problems, and in a way they are. However, the film also goes for sentiment in depicting this close-knit family whom are all very loving to one another. Son Warren becomes a high-school hustler, doing recon work to get all the dirt on the various cliques of the school. He uses this information to his advantage by obtaining half of the cigarette dealing trade, getting his homework done for him, and coordinating a beatdown on a group of bullies. The gorgeous blonde daughter Belle serves a beatdown of her own on a group of boys who try to have their way with her in the park. Meanwhile, Maggie blows up a supermarket after the manager has some less than kind words for her, and Fred mercilessly beats a plumber with a baseball bat after the worker attempts to rip him off. Because we’re supposed to root for and sympathize with the Blake/Manzoni family, it’s a bit off-putting that director Luc Besson decided to make their handing out of violence so brutal. It may fit in with the psyche of their characters, but it might also be more satisfying if the screenwriters could have come up with some other clever ways for the family to exact vengeance.
In the film’s oddest and funniest gag, De Niro’s character attends a Film Society screening of Goodfellas, during which he is asked to discuss how the classic gangster movie compares and contrasts with real life. It’s a pretty funny shout out in a meta sort of way, even if it makes no sense. I wonder who plays James Conway in the bizarro movie universe that The Family is set in. Pacino? Or does the actor Robert De Niro still exist in this world, and Fred Blake happens to look eerily identical to him? Martin Scorsese serves as an executive producer on this film, so it’s nice to see him and De Niro not taking themselves too seriously in poking fun at their past work.
Tommy Lee Jones shows up in a supporting role as Robert Stansfield, the FBI agent assigned with the difficult task of ensuring that the family keep a low profile. This proves to be an impossible task, as Giovanni/Fred’s old associates do in fact locate his whereabouts. This leads to a preposterous third act in which the whole family, including the children, get in on the gunplay against the ruthless mobsters. If they were going for an all-out farce, the absurd nature of this wouldn’t cause such eye-rolling. But because the movie also wants to be a serious action thriller, watching the teenaged Belle and Warren armed with shotguns and double uzis whilst blowing away gangsters is fairly dumb. Dumb fun, sure, but dumb nonetheless.
The Family is the type of action comedy that’s amusing without being particularly funny. While there aren’t many laughs, most of the film is fundamentally humorous. The whole cast is likable in a maniacal sort of way. This is one of De Niro’s better roles in recent years, and Pfeiffer’s best in recent years. It makes you wonder why we don’t see more of her on the big-screen. This movie is one of the more glaring examples of a squandered opportunity, with an inspired premise that could have been utilized to a much greater effect. However, if you’re taking this film for what it is as opposed to what it could have been, The Family is good enough escapist entertainment.