Luc Besson is known for his skill in making hard-driving if intellectually arid movies replete with action and violence, but he’s never exhibited any subtlety or much of a sense of humor. Unfortunately, those are precisely the qualities “The Family,” which he’s adapted from a novel by Tonino Benacquista, needs, but sorely lacks. The dark fish-out-of-water farce about a mob family that can’t cope with life in witness protection is strongly cast, but Besson proves incapable of melding the nastiness and laughs into a cohesive whole. The result is tonally schizophrenic and abrasive.
Nonetheless, it has to be admitted that just as he did in “Analyze This” and “Analyze That,” Robert De Niro has fun with the role of a mafia chieftain, here one Giovanni Manzoni, alias Fred Blake. He has a $20 million price on his head after turning state’s evidence against his boss Don Luchese (Stan Carp), who’s hunting him down from his prison cell. It’s the unenviable task of US Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) to protect Gio, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), their daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D’Leo) from the goons Luchese is sending out to find them, especially since they keep blowing their cover by using the methods familiar to them but frowned upon outside Cosa Nostra to deal with anybody who crosses them.
The latest locale to which they’re sent is a small town in Normandy, where they waste little time reverting to their old ways. Gio/Fred not only arrives with a body in the trunk from their last residence, but immediately begins writing his memoirs—a no-no—while taking a baseball bat to a plumber who tries to shake him down and brutalizing an industrialist responsible for the icky tap water. Maggie blows up a grocery store whose owner mutters insults against Americans, and then scandalizes the parish priest she decides to make a long-delayed confession to. Blonde bombshell Belle beats the living daylights out of a pimply French classmate who tries to come on to her while setting out to seduce the handsome student teacher she’s developed a crush on. And slick, conniving Warren plots—besides forging all sorts of documents—to take vengeance on some school bullies who’d manhandled him. And all that is in addition to the neighborhood barbecue they plan to throw.
It doesn’t take long for Luchese to locate them, and to send a small army of black-hatted goons to wipe them out—though the mechanism by which he discovers where they are, a sequence involving a school newspaper that’s supposed to be funny in a Rube Goldberg way, is incredibly dumb. And it all culminates in explosions, massive gunfire and a garroting sequence so gruesome that it might remind you of “The Godfather.” The level of bloodletting in the finale is amazingly high, and appallingly explicit, but presumably it’s okay because all the victims are murderous mobsters, inept federal agents, or—even worse—French. (For a picture made by a French director, the depiction of virtually every Gallic person on display as obnoxious, rude, stupid, malicious, dishonest, cowardly, callous or some combination of the above is really remarkable.)
There are, to be sure, a few moments in the picture that earn some laughs. The best by far is a sequence near the end in which Fred is invited by a clumsy fellow in charge of the local film society to discuss an American flick, which turns out to be “GoodFellas”—though it’s easy to imagine how the scene could have been written much more sharply. And De Niro’s nonchalant manner of explaining away his sadistic tendencies in a running narration will elicit an occasional chuckle. But by and large the attempts at humor are derailed by the mayhem. It takes skill to juggle jokes and violence—“Kick Ass” and “Kick Ass 2” are perfect examples of how it’s done and how it isn’t—and Besson simply doesn’t possess it. It’s difficult to laugh when you’re cringing at the amount of cruelty on the screen.
Nor, apart from De Niro, does the cast bring much to the party. Pfeiffer just does a variation of the typically long-suffering mob wife, loud and aggressive—until the scripts suddenly shifts into bathetic mode and we’re supposed to sympathize with her concern for her family. Agron is pretty and D’Leo smooth, but neither lights things up, and once again the picture fails to make the switch from seeing them as caricatures to caring about their fears and needs. Jones is utterly wasted as the lawman with the hangdog face, a part he’s played so many time in the past that he appears just to be coasting through it this time, and nobody else matters, including the bunch of mob types you’ll recognize from other, better films. The behind-the-camera work is more than adequate, and the locations look authentic.
But “The Family” winds up as a movie that satisfies neither as a comedy nor as an action flick. Perhaps with a different hand at the helm, it could have worked. But as it is, its only enjoyable element lies in watching De Niro send up his own typecasting—again.