Not much to laugh at in half-baked Mafia-action/comedy
Loutish Italian-Americans, living in France under the protection of the FBI, run wild in a small, picturesque town in Normandy. That’s the premise of The Family, a “Mafia farce” in which a French director (Luc Besson) and two American stars (Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer) try to have some fun juggling (and occasionally inverting) a scrappy assortment of stereotypes and clichés.
De Niro plays one Giovanni Manzoni, a New York mobster who has testified against fellow Mafia and is now hiding out in France with his wife (Pfeiffer) and their teenage children, Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo). All four are the beneficiaries, more or less, of a witness-protection program that provides them with elaborate cover stories, semi-luxurious accommodations, and a trio of ever-vigilant FBI “minders.”
The story, adapted by Besson and Michael Caleo from a comic novel by Tonino Benacquista, trades heavily in the comedy of apparent contradictions. Giovanni is pretending to be an amiable American paterfamilias named “Fred Blake,” and his wife and kids all have the air of well-scrubbed middle-class strivers who feel perfectly entitled to any and all name-brand creature comforts that have their interest. But all four, it seems, just can’t help but behave like Mafia thugs in certain situations.
The latter contradiction is central to The Family’s story and to its muddled brand of comedy. Giovanni administers harsh beatings to merchants, public officials and a plumber who fail to deliver the service he expects. Maggie (Pfeiffer) burns down grocery stores she finds unsatisfactory. Warren and Belle deal out violent retribution and revenge on schoolyard bullies and wanna-be sexual predators.
Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, The Professional) has shown no particular gift for comedy, and since he is very proficient with violent action and fast-track narrative, that proves especially problematic in this case. The Family is persistently amusing, but never really laugh-out-loud funny. Even the absurdities of violence in this tale are pictured with an authority and an immediacy that leave the comic elements fizzling somewhere on the margins of the action.
One of the film’s better scenes has the De Niro character attending a meeting of French cinephiles for a screening and discussion of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. It might be an important and revealing moment for the character, but it also brings some invidious comparisons into sharper focus. Giovanni’s story might well be taken as comic riffing on themes and characters from Goodfellas, but Besson’s film shows no real grasp of the dark humor residing in Scorsese’s perspectives on characters who haven’t quite come to terms with the violent contradictions and self-deceptions of their very bold lives.
Besson hedges his bets with the story’s violence. The violence of the mobsters pursuing Giovanni is explicit and unfunny, and the violence of Belle and Warren is explicit and funny and plainly fanciful. Giovanni’s fantasies of violence are explicit and played for laughs, but the details of the extended beatings he administers are mostly omitted.
De Niro has the most detailed role in the bunch, but neither he nor Pfeiffer gets much chance to do anything more than replay some old, familiar moves. The film’s best acting comes from Tommy Lee Jones in the thankless role of Giovanni’s chief FBI minder.