While it has its highlights, The Family limits our frame of reference to other movies, rather than anything resembling real life.
The Family, directed by Luc Besson. At cinemas throughout New England.
By Betsy Sherman
Comedies can rack up a body count and still be tasty, as proven by last year’s Seven Psychopaths. But French action impresario Luc Besson can’t make the mix of humor and violence yummy in The Family, which he directed (relatively rare for him these days) as well as produced and co-scripted. It stars Robert De Niro as Giovanni Manzoni, a Brooklyn mobster who flipped for the FBI and put the head of his Mafia family, Don Lucchese, in prison. Michelle Pfeiffer is his loyal wife and Tommy Lee Jones is the federal agent who shepherds them and their teenage children through the witness protection program. While it has its highlights, The Family limits our frame of reference to other movies, rather than anything resembling real life (Goodfellas, which is directly referenced, is one of the main touchstones, and Martin Scorsese is among the movie’s four executive producers).
Just as The Family is about family with a big ‘F’ and with a small ‘f,’ it’s about revenge both big (the Luccheses’ $20 million bounty on Gio’s head) and small (17-year-old Belle’s smackdown of a classmate who stole her pencil box). It’s deep in the Manzonis’ nature that accepting a slight means a loss of power, and any diminution in power is intolerable. It’s up to longsuffering fed Stansfield to deal with the fallout from Gio and his brood’s instincts.
As the story opens, the Manzonis (now called the Blakes) are moving from the Riviera, where they’ve blown their cover, to a village in Normandy (I know, pretty sweet). One of the funnier moments in the film comes during the American-style cookout the Blakes hold for their neighbors. Gathered around the grill where “Fred” Blake cooks hamburgers, a ring of Frenchmen tell him what he’s doing wrong. The men start laughing derisively until Fred grabs one and holds the side of his face to the grill. Fortunately, that last part is Gio’s fantasy.
Gio finds an old typewriter in their new digs and begins working on a memoir. De Niro’s voice-over gives us an entry into Gio’s thoughts and a brisk montage of reminiscences does the same for his gangland backstory. Naturally, his words minimize the mayhem in his past. He declares, “I don’t have a single regret.” Yet the action of writing and the salt-and-pepper beard he has coincidentally grown combine to make Gio believe that he’s now an author, as if he could fundamentally transform himself from the outside in. His wife Maggie is happy that he’s got something to boost his morale, but cautions him that a tell-all book would cause “a shitstorm.”
One of the movie’s conceits is that nearly everyone in town speaks fluent English, which is lucky since the Manzonis have little if any relationship with the French language. That contrivance calls for merely a wink. Unfortunately, The Family ends up asking for a lot more suspension of disbelief than it deserves. This is most glaring in the plot lines given to highschoolers Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo). Their personality traits are far too often irritatingly convenient, with Belle going from tough to fragile when a change of psyche is needed. Fourteen-year-old Warren’s swift takeover of the school’s petty rackets is more ridiculous than truly funny.
All that said, De Niro and Pfeiffer are a pleasure to watch. Pfeiffer’s accent recalls her great performance in Married to the Mob, but she turns Maggie into a fresh creation, full of warmth, pride in her family and her cooking, and, yes, a violent streak that comes out when villagers gripe behind her back. De Niro puts some twinkle into Gio when he’s paired with Pfeiffer (there’s a delightfully flirty scene on a sofa) and with Jones, as Gio busts chops with Stansfied. There’s also good work from Jimmy Palumbo and Domenick Lombardozzi as the family’s FBI minders and Mike Bocchetti as a crime victim. These moments may make the movie worth seeing, but be prepared to wade through some unfunny nonsense to get there.