Luc Besson’s The Family tries to be too many movies at once, and none of them are any good. It’s an overcooked Mafia meatball comedy laced with jarringly inappropriate violence and jokes that only its writers would enjoy.
It wants to be a comedy, but it isn’t funny. It wants to be a sometimes scary and realistic take on Mafia life, but it severely lacks tension. It also wants to be a family drama, but because none of its characters can be taken seriously, it lacks credibility. It also boasts an over-stylized, fairytale quality that just makes the whole undertaking a weird, unbalanced experience.
Robert De Niro plays Giovanni, a Mafia hitman who ratted out his co-workers and has been relocated with his family to Normandy, France, where he receives the new name Fred Blake. His wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron of Glee) and son Warren (John D’Leo) all seem rather forgiving of Fred’s past evil ways, and take to their new town with varying degrees of acceptance and criminal behavior.
Obviously, De Niro has mined this sort of material before with his mafia comedy Analyze This, and its sorry sequel, Analyze … Oh Stop It, Already! While he went with parody in the Analyze movies, he plays it straight and mellow in this one, except when Frank regresses into violent behavior when the plumber tries to screw him over. Then he goes into Travis Bickle mode, with the sort of violence that doesn’t feel at home in a stylish comedy.
One of the bigger films of Pfeiffer’s early career was Married to the Mob, and her Maggie character is essentially just a replay of her mafia girl in that one. A thick N.Y. accent and a lot of eye-rolling reminds of her past glory, but does little to make the new movie anything original or intriguing. It’s a shame, because Pfeiffer is an interesting actress who isn’t pulling down many good roles these days.
Agron’s part of the movie is perhaps the film’s most annoying and discordant. Her character is a high school virgin looking to lose it to a young man studying to be a teacher. She’s also capable of breaking your ass with a tennis racket if you try to take advantage of her in a public park. She’s also a hopeless romantic who thinks suicide is the answer when her man rejects her. She’s also a crack shot with a handgun when mobsters show up from the U.S. to end her. She’s a whole lot of things, and none of them make a lick of sense.
As for D’Leo, his story involves dealing with the bullies at school. He hatches some sort of plan involving sports trading cards that never truly gets spelled out, and finds himself in trouble for stuff that’s never made clear. Like Agron’s character, his story arc feels incomplete, misguided, unfulfilling and the antithesis of the intended funny.
Besson made Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element back in the day when he was good. He also made The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and this movie when he was bad. I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s a better visual artist than complete storyteller. When he puts words to his visuals, they just don’t match. It worked well with The Fifth Element, which was a beautifully odd film, but his formula just doesn’t work when applied to a giggly Mafioso story.
There’s a dopey subplot involving Giovanni’s yearning to be an author. He’s writing some hackneyed novel/memoir that raises the ire of the agent assigned to watch him in Normandy (Tommy Lee Jones, whose performance appears totally confused, as if he’s in a movie that is supposed to be serious).
At one point, the people in their small town invite Giovanni to some sort of film society screening to give commentary on a movie. That movie winds up being Goodfellas, which should’ve provided a chance for De Niro to perform some good self-parody. Besson blows this opportunity, and the moment winds up feeling desperate and muted.
There are some other little nods to American mobster movies and TV shows that just don’t work. Vincent Pastore shows up as a character named Fat Willy. Pastore, of course, played Big Pussy on The Sopranos. So instead of being a large vagina he is now a big dick. Funny.
The Family has an identity crisis. The performances aren’t half bad. In fact, you could argue that De Niro and Pfeiffer are actually quite good in the thing. Unfortunately, they are slaves to a script that doesn’t know what it is trying to say, and a director more interested in a film that looks pretty rather than one that is coherent.