Nobody plays a mobster quite as well as Robert De Niro. In The Family (opening today), he returns to this familiar ground, as a former mob guy now in the witness protection program with his wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), his daughter, Belle (Dianna Agron) and his son, Warren (John D'Leo). This is a mob comedy in the vein of Analyze This, where being in the mafia is mostly fun and where we can count on our protagonists to be thoroughly untouchable. It's all relative...so to speak...because the movie exists mainly for the large portion of audience members obsessed with mob culture. Surely there is comedy to be found in the world of wise guys, but few gangster films have made where so little is at stake.
Of course, the film wants you to believe there is something at stake. De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, now called Fred Blake, who is set up to live with his family in Normandy, France by his gruff Federal Agent in charge of protecting him, Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones, speaking of playing a character on "familiar ground"). They have to keep moving the Manzonis...er, the Blakes...because this is one horrible immediate famiglia.
Dad is still a cold-blooded gangster at heart, now writing his memoirs in secret. Mom is a vindictive ice queen who blows up supermarkets wherever she goes. The young son can quickly manipulate an entire school to do his bidding and the beautiful teenage daughter can clearly kick some ass, as she does when a group of boys try to seduce her.
Through one of the most poorly conceived, contrived methods ever, Giovanni's old mob boss - now in state prison - learns of his whereabouts in Normandy. He puts out his mobster bulldogs to carry out a hit on the guy who snitched on his Italian "family" years prior.
Although it sets out to be a sort of black comedy, The Family's tone is all over the place. At times it is serious and at times lighthearted, bordering on whacky. It ends by becoming a bloody action film. The problem is that none of it is pulled off that effectively by writer/director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element).
Worst of all, who are we rooting for? This family is just a rag-tag group of unforgiving criminals. None of them are really all that likeable and there were times where I found myself hoping against them. It's the sort of movie where people walk around over-confident, because they know they exist only in a movie. There are no real consequences.
Adding to the ineffectiveness are a series of implausible occurrences sprinkled throughout the film. A bad guy runs out of bullets just as he has one of the family members in his sights...despite the same bad guy having brought about 100 weapons with him to the melee. The daughter, Bella, falls for a school teacher and quickly becomes suicidal...really? This is the mesmerizing Dianna Agron after all, playing a beautiful and strong young Italian...are you telling me that she can't get any boys? Again, only in the movies.
But as their characters are miserably unlikeable, Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer are easy to cheer for. Their charm as actors lift The Family out of absurdity and squarely into mediocrity.
There is a funny sequence where De Niro's character is tasked with speaking at a film group's screening of an American film. At the last minute, the film is changed and they instead show Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas...a film that a young Robert De Niro starred in himself. To see his character give insight into his own film was pretty delightful.
So The Family is passable as entertainment, but it's just one of those in-the-middle films that probably could have been done better.
Genre: Action, Comedy, Crime
Run Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, Tommy Lee Jones, John D'Leo, Dominic Chianese, Vincent Pastore
Based on the book by Tonino Benacquista
Co-written by Michael Caleo & Luc Besson
Directed by Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, The Lady)
Opens locally on Friday, Sept 13, 2013 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time