Going to see “The Family” is like getting two movies for the price of one…that is not necessarily a good thing. “The Family’s” first hour and a half is a comedy and it is funny and clever. In the last 30 minutes or so, “The Family” becomes a cop/mob/thriller and it’s nowhere near as successful as the comedy. Yes, the scenes are extremely well-done and the acting is still top-notch. But there is something very wrong and distasteful about watching innocent citizens being slaughtered (slaughter is most definitely the correct term) for no other reason…than what? I’m at a loss.
So let me begin at the beginning, which has a very unexpected opening scene. Directed by Luc Besson with screenplay by Besson and Michael Caleo, based on the book by Tonino Benacquista (with Martin Scorsese as one of the executive producers), ”The Family” is about a New York Mafia family on the run. Fred Blake/Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) has ratted out against his Mafia connections and is now in the witness protection program in Normandy with wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), son Warren (John D’Leo) and the family dog…all under the watchful eye and protection of the FBI headed by Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).
Even though this is yet another fish out of water story, it is very funny in the hands of this brilliant cast. The kids really take it on the chin…literally…in school, just for being American. But the two are not mobster’s children for nothing, and soon are giving as good as they are receiving. John D’Leo as the 14-year-old is absolutely brilliant as the youngest wise-guy ever. It’s almost like we’re at the birth of a young Robert De Niro. Dianna Agron is exceptionally good at showing toughness and real vulnerability, especially when it comes to the scenes with her high-school teacher crush and in discussing that crush with her mother. Michelle Pfeiffer is extraordinary as the mobster mom. Watching her try to blend in is hysterical…she tries for about 30 seconds and then all bets are off. Pfeiffer is so good she almost steals the whole movie. And boy, does she look amazing. Most of Tommy Lee Jones’ scenes are with De Niro and he really excels without saying very much. This brings us to De Niro. His character decides that his new profession will be that of writer. Although he tells others he is writing a story about WWII, in reality Giovanni is writing his autobiography. This gives him an opportunity to wax rhapsodic about his mobster career and it’s almost like a retrospective of De Niro’s work. His scenes with each character are fantastic, even those with Malavita, the dog. And speaking of the dog…where do they get these animals? This dog’s face is so expressive and his scenes with De Niro are fabulous. There should be a new category for best animal in a movie at the Academy Awards. But I digress.
The film begins to turn dark when an innocent slip by Warren puts his family in danger. When Giovanni is asked to lecture about the movie, “Some Came Running,” for the local film club, Stansfield thinks this is a bad idea and will bring unwanted attention to Giovanni and his family, but Giovanni insists and Stansfield unhappily escorts him to the event. However, a last-minute switch of movies really puts Stansfield on edge as Giovanni begins to put too much of his own firsthand knowledge into his review of the switched film. It’s at this moment that “The Family” goes off the rails and never really recovers. I’m not sure how I wanted the film to end, but I found the conclusion unsettling and very unsatisfying.
With this terrifically talented cast, “The Family” had the opportunity to be something special. Unfortunately that opportunity is disappointingly squandered.