There are certainly worse ways to spend two hours at the theater than by watching De Niro play an old Mobster in a self-reflexive action/comedy.
The Family revolves around the Manzonis, a notorious Mafia family that’s been hiding out in and around France ever since the patriarch Giovanni (Robert De Niro) ratted out his fellow mobsters to the Feds. Giovanni and his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D’Leo) have been a constant thorn in the side of Witness Protection Program agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) for the past ten years, since their habitual psychotic behavior is constantly blowing the U.S. government’s covert operation.
Giovanni, now passing himself off as American Fred Blake, relocates with his family to the sleepy town of Normandy, where at first it seems as though the (former?) criminals will be able to settle down quietly and keep a low profile. However, as the saying goes, old habits die hard and soon enough all of the Manzonis start getting themselves into trouble – the kind that, sooner or later, is bound to earn unwanted attention from the hitmen looking to collect the bounty on Giovanni’s head.
Filmmaker Luc Besson – director of La Femme Nikita and Léon: The Professional and co-writer/producer on the Transporter and Taken movies – is well established for the way he celebrates, yet also comments upon American crime/action genre tropes in his scripts – and The Family keeps with that tradition. Besson directed this project in addition to co-writing the adapted screenplay (drawing from Tonino Benacquista’s novel, Malavita), so the final movie product offers a more even blending of dark satire, social commentary, off-beat humor, moral substance and quirky aesthetics than some of the other films released under Besson’s EuroCorp banner over the past decade.
On the surface, the tagline for Benacquista’s source novel – “Imagine The Sopranos transplanted to the French countryside” – seems to be applicable to The Family, yet Besson’s approach harkens back to the French New Wave, in the way his film riffs on and deconstructs the “Mobsters in suburbia” premise by shifting the action to the European countryside. The Family isn’t Besson’s strongest work, but he and co-writer Michael Caleo – who knows a thing or two about re-examining the gangster anti-hero myth after having worked as a story editor on The Sopranos – are successful in making a movie that’s fun to watch and yet has something to say about the way that Hollywood glamorizes the mobster lifestyle.
The first two acts in Besson and Caleo’s script revolve around the daily exploits of the Manzoni clan, before the narrative picks up speed and things come to a head in the third act. Story-wise, the film is most interesting when examining such issues as Europeans’ obsession with American pop culture (another callback to the French New Wave), in addition to using dark humor to explore how a pure-blooded Mafia family might really act. However, although the third act is solid, it’s not as sharp or biting as it had the potential to be in the way it comments on gangster movie tropes (beginning with an enormous plot coincidence that is not quite as self-aware as it might’ve been).
On a related note, there’s also a fair amount of self-reflexive material in the film, whether it’s the casting of mobster genre king De Niro and Pfeiffer – who portrayed a gangster wife in Married to the Mob and/or Scarface – or the way that elements from the cinema of Martin Scorsese (an executive producer on The Family) are referenced using a wry, but often sledgehammer manner. The best meta-jokes are also the most subtle ones – but even the on-the-nose shout-outs are forgivable, partly because the way they are handled often makes The Family feel more akin to a sly criticism than a love letter to Scorsese (and the latter’s involvement with this movie suggests that he might even be okay with that).
De Niro and Pfeiffer are, likewise, good sports when it comes to how they riff on their screen legacies in The Family, while at the same time fleshing out their own characters so that they feel three-dimensional enough (within the context of the film’s universe). Similarly, Agron often seems to be having the most fun, while she riffs on her ordinary American teen image from Glee and movies like I Am Number Four; that holds true to a lesser extent with D’Leo, who plays the brilliant yet delinquent son in the story.
Jones plays his usual no-nonsense curmudgeon role here, but he at least seems to be comfortable with being in this movie (unlike some of his recent blockbuster appearances). Meanwhile, the supporting cast includes Jimmy Palumbo (Man on a Ledge), Domenick Lombardozzi (The Wire), Stan Carp (Magic City) and Vincent Pastore (The Sopranos) – all of whom get a moment or two to shine while playing variations on their well-worn cop/criminal personas, in keeping with the meta nature of The Family.
The Family doesn’t represent Besson at his best, but here the filmmaker once again proves that he is a storyteller who knows how to produce European pop-art cinema that is far more delightful (and, in many ways, more intelligent) than you might expect, based on the film’s sitcom-style description. There are certainly worse ways to spend two hours at the theater than by watching De Niro play an old Mobster in a self-reflexive action/comedy (emphasis on the comedy) made by an eccentric French autuer.
The Family is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 110 minutes long and is Rated R for violence, language and brief sexuality.
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