Robert De Niro as a mobster is the safest role the star can play at this juncture of his career after a streak of several below average films (“Silver Linings Playbook” excluded). With the popular “Analyze This,” De Niro took a bawdy and comedic twist on his famed mob persona, but with Luc Besson’s dark and entertaining “The Family,” the Oscar-winner keeps most, but not all, of the laughs at bay and maintains his grittier edge.
When mobster Giovanni Manzoni snitches on his own mob family, he, his wife and his children are placed into the witness protection program and sent to the tranquil and remote Normandy, France to begin their new life. Under the surveillance of FBI agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), the Manzonis – now the Blakes – must try to fit in with the local French culture, which for a group of reckless, violent mobsters is easier said than done.
Besson and Michael Caleo’s screenplay, based on the novel by the excellent Tonino Benacquista, is nicely crafted, if a little maudlin at times. Each of the four Blake family members gets equal play, allowing the audience to connect with each one’s social and emotional challenges. All four members of the Blakes unload their heavy consciences in their own way, although the women out-perform the men; Michelle Pfeiffer is excellent with her thick Brooklyn accent and gaudy late 70s fashion and hair. Like her husband and children, she can be offensively violent one moment then a whimsical homebody the next. But to alleviate her grief, she tries to reconnect with her faith in a local Normandy church. Diana Agron as Belle is a feisty beauty who seeks true love from her math teacher to help her move away from her crazy family. Then there’s John D’Leo as Warren, who takes the “family business” to his new high school, working the student body to his benefit.
Giovanni’s cover is to be a writer, and though he has no skill or knowledge of writing, the ex-mobster stumbles into amateurishly writing his memoirs. Besson attempts to show this vicious criminal finding his conscience through writing, which should help correct his course, but the script never gets to that. Giovanni has no real definable arc; he’s still the same brute at the end as he was in the start.
As each of the four Blakes blunder their way through their new identities, word gets back to mob kingpin Don Mimino (Dominic Chianese) as to Giovanni’s whereabouts, prompting him to dispatch his assassins. It is then up to Tommy Lee Jones and his two assistants to help protect the Blakes.
The film plays better when it focuses on the more intimate moments of the family dealing with their inner demons and attempting to connect with anything that resembles sanity. But “The Family” starts to buckle at the seams when it tries to go too big or too over-the-top. For instance, the manner in which mob kingpin Don Mimino discovers Giovanni’s location is so preposterous it breaks the even flow of the film and single-handedly wrecks a good portion of it.
Besson focuses more on the action and suspense than the comedy, which keeps the film from having an identity crisis. The overall premise is comedic, but this is a dark, often violent film that occasionally dips into humor. The comedy generally lies in the expectation of Giovanni’s supposed violent reaction to any given situation that doesn’t go his way. Not every moment of violence is shown, most are alluded to, which is smart on Besson’s part and makes the film much stronger.
With a sensational cast, one would expect the acting to be out of this world, but apart from Pfeiffer and the kids, De Niro and Jones seem exhausted and rather bored. These roles are certainly not difficult material for them and while De Niro gives the right amount of energy to keep one’s attention for two hours, this just isn’t one of his most exciting performances.
However, De Niro and Pfeiffer’s shared screen time is enticing, to say the least. They are a perfect fit, especially as a mob family. Whether they are bickering over a murder or plumbing, they both deliver laughs. But its Pfeiffer’s commanding presence as the diva mob wife that steals the picture.
An interesting cultural twist in “The Family” curtails the usual European stereotypes. Typically in films with fish-out-of-water Americans in a foreign country, the comedy focuses on the stereotypes of the foreigners. However, since this is written and directed by French Luc Besson, the comedic stereotypes all fall on the Americans, especially regarding food, with jokes about America’s craving for peanut butter, love of hamburgers, loudly sipping soda through straws and the notion of an overly obese population. The movie also specifically targets pop culture’s view of the mafia, even lampooning and self-referencing De Niro and executive producer Martin Scorsese’s mob classic “Goodfellas.”
“The Family” may not be top tier De Niro, but it is excellent Pfeiffer and a welcome return for director Luc Besson to the crime genre that made his name.
MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 1 hour and 52 minutes.