Family, The (United States/France, 2013)September 12, 2013
On the surface, The Family appears to tell a familiar story: a mob enforcer turned informer is placed into the witness protection program while his former associates seek to find and terminate him. What differentiates this from its antecedents is the light, witty manner in which director Luc Besson treats the subject. Besson's history is one of making crowd-pleasing entertainment and The Family is no different. He doesn't shy away from big, flashy action sequences when the story demands it but, when he goes that route, he does so with a dose of over-the-top humor and the flair of a comic book. Although The Family is not intended to be viewed as a straight-up farce or comedy, Besson isn't averse to in-jokes and the occasional tongue-in-cheek moment.
The Family merges two acting generations. The veterans are represented by Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Tommy Lee Jones. It's refreshing to see De Niro once again making an effort in his roles after spending an extended period (ending with Silver Linings Playbook) coasting. This isn't vintage De Niro but at least there's more substance here than in a lot of his other recent projects. Michelle Pfeiffer, who flirted with this sort of a role 25 years ago in Married to the Mob, is enjoying something of a renaissance after working only sparingly for more than a decade. Tommy Lee Jones is a little disappointing - he's using the same deadpan approach that has become his typecast shtick and it doesn't work as well here as in some other projects. The film's youth element is in the hands of Glee's Dianna Argon, who is appealing in a way Hit Girl would approve, and relative unknown John D'Leo. For supporting roles - mostly wiseguys - Besson plunders The Sopranos file, pulling out names like Dominic Chianese and Vincent Pastore. Is there a mob-related film in which Pastore doesn't make an appearance?
The family that plays together stays together. Despite changing street addresses (in France) and last names, the "Blakes" (actually the " Manzonis") continue to believe in certain shared philosophies about conflict resolution. When mob wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) feels slighted at a grocery store, she blows it up. When daughter Belle (Dianna Argon) is distressed at the way some boys treat her, she makes non-standard use of a tennis racket. When son Warren (John D'Leo) is bullied at school, he arranges a coalition to deliver payback. And when dad Fred (Robert De Niro) is treated in a manner he deems to be "disrespectful," he makes his displeasure known. Sometimes, like Al Capone, that's using a baseball bat. Other times, the solution leads to a shallow grave.
The Blakes have been enrolled in the witness protection plan since Fred ratted on his friends as part of an FBI operation. His beleaguered handler, Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), does his best to keep the family safe but Fred is his own worst enemy. Despite being sequestered in a provincial village in France, the Blakes can't keep their profile low enough to avoid detection. Eventually, a mobster put in jail by Fred sends a squad of hit men across the Atlantic with one goal.
The Family moves along breezily with a fast pace and light tone. Some things don't work - Fred's attempts at being a writer, Belle's romance with a math teacher, and the family's interaction with the Feds across the street - but these are minor missteps that don't derail the entire production. When a major contrivance is needed to move the narrative along, it's introduced in a self-aware, wink-wink-nudge-nudge fashion. The movie has a lot of fun with gangster types and mob movie situations. This is especially evident in a clever in-joke involving Fred's oratory at a film club and the big, pyrotechnically charged finale. Overall, like most offerings from Luc Besson - who has never been shy about his love of big, overblown Hollywood fare - this one is good fun without being great cinema.
Family, The (United States/France, 2013)
Cast: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D'Leo, Dominic Chianese
Screenplay: Luc Besson and Michael Caleo, based on the book by Tonino Benacquista
Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Music: Evgueni and Sacha Galperine
U.S. Distributor: Relativity Media