“The Family” wants to be a clever, offbeat gangster picture while also paying homage to the films it attempts to emulate. Fomenting likening to renowned classics is rarely a good idea, and here Luc Besson’s movie fails to replicate even the most basic elements of the genre’s elite. The family of protagonists is indeed idiosyncratic, but none are particularly engaging or inspirational and most border on psychopathic with no redeeming qualities in sight. The tone shifts drastically from comedy to drama to action, while wasting character development on asinine subplots involving math tutor crushes and the necessity for clean tap water. Robert De Niro’s patriarch is far too close to pure evil to garner empathy and the rest of the family isn’t much better. The nonstop lies, conniving, scheming, bullying, and rampant hostility on display don’t help secure much compassion and while the conclusion is suspenseful, it’s not nearly as affecting as it should be.
After 19 years in witness protection as a mob informant, Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) and his family are moved to a small town in Normandy, France. Though under the watchful eye of CIA Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), Giovanni, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and his children Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo), find themselves habitually returning to their criminalistic tendencies. But fitting in with the locals may be the least of the Manzoni Family’s concerns as a dangerous mafia hitman steadily closes in on their location.
The most glaring mistake “The Family” makes is to utilize Robert De Niro so poorly. Here is one of the most recognized and accomplished wiseguy movie antiheroes in the history of cinema, and director Besson can’t manage to do anything with him but cling woefully to the aura of De Niro’s past. In a particularly daring move, the film inserts “Goodfellas” into the script, acknowledging its existence within the fictional premise. As if begging to incite comparisons, Blake deliberates its properties to a group that apparently isn’t allowed to address the fact that De Niro also starred in such a classic of modern gangster cinema. Perhaps the worst part of the self-referential, pseudo-homage attempt is that Martin Scorsese served as an executive producer on “The Family.” Did any of the participants truly believe they could top “Goodfellas”?
In the beginning, the children are repeatedly examined, shown to be surprisingly adaptive to unforgiving new environments. Both are bullied in different ways, and respond amusingly, with the boy outsmarting his opponents through sundry information gathering and networking allies, and the girl using her fists for transparent reprisal. Meanwhile, as a narrator, Fred expresses his own distaste for the life he now leads, literally typing out reinforcement of his nobler attributes, each bearing a distinct roughness in nature. For example, he doesn’t like to inflict pain for no reason – his abundant sadism is satiated on genuinely deserving scumbags.
The problem is that each story leads to meaningless, surfacing climaxes. Will something important take place at a large barbeque gathering? Is there a purpose to the subplot of climbing up the ladder in search of the responsible party for bad plumbing? While maintaining a quirky, comedic tone to the merciless slaughtering of targets, dumping of bodies, torture, and shootouts (all primarily through music cues,) the film fails to focus on a point. And with romance, suspense, elaborate bloodshed, reflection, an inherent hatred of foreigners, humorously crass dialogue, irrational teen reasoning, and the pondering of proper parenting, “The Family” doesn’t know in which direction it wants to, or should, wander down.
- The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)