For a director so in love with explosive action and big gun shootouts, it’s ironic French director Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional) is such a hit-or-miss filmmaker. His movies often walk a fine line between homage and originality, and in some cases with the right star, such as Bruce Willis in the sci-fi epic The Fifth Element, Besson can breathe fresh life into a genre while respecting its conventions and clichés. Despite his best effort to do the same with the mob genre in his latest, The Family, his first movie behind the camera in almost seven years, the screenplay is so unevenly constructed that Besson can’t quite hit the blend of parody/homage/originality he’s so cleverly trying to target. Given Besson’s track record this should hardly be disappointing, but with a cast that includes Robert DeNiro, Michele Pfeiffer, and Tommy Lee Jones, the lackluster final product leaves more of a sting this time around.
Based on the novel Malavita by Tonino Banacquista, who shares screenwriting credit with Besson and Michael Caleo, The Family follows ex-mafia boss Giovanni Manzoni (DeNiro) as he moves his wife (Pfeiffer) and two children (Glee’s Dianna Agron, John D’Leo) to a quaint town in Normandy. The catch? The family is under the witness protection program after Giovanni ratted out his cohorts, and despite their best efforts to fit it, not one family member seems able to adapt to the lifestyle of such a sleepy European town. No worries – Giovanni’s incarcerated boss is on the hunt for the traitor’s head and it’s only a matter of time before hoards of suit-and-tie gangsters flood the streets of Normandy with rocket launchers and shotguns.
It sounds straight forward enough but the screenplay does the film its biggest disservice by presenting the crux of the material as flashbacks. We pick up with the Manzoni’s as they’re settling into their new home abroad (which isn’t the first time they’ve been relocated), and while we can see their boredom and anxiousness thanks to some minorly amusing gags, the best being Pfeiffer’s sly takedown of a convenience store, we never get a real insight into just how awful or upset any character feels after going from mob-riches-to-mobile-rags. After Giovanni finds a type writer he begins to write his memoirs and we finally get some quick peeks into the family’s history and what exactly they did wrong, but it’s all so built into pre-packaged flashbacks that it’s just exposition and nothing emotional. What we end up with is one-note characters that we don’t really care about or remotely have any interest in.
Maybe this would all be forgivable if the group at the center of The Family actually acted like, you know, a family, but aside from Pfeiffer’s wisecracking maternity, no one here is in tune with one another. Once again, the screenplay drops the ball by giving each character a disconnected subplot; DeNiro’s humble crankiness can make you smile just because it’s DeNiro (and he puts it to good use during the film’s best scene, a minor meta sequence when DeNiro, posing as an American writer, must give a film lecture on Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas) but even this mafia veteran looks tired and worn out. Agron gets stuck in a horrendous virgin/lover plot line and D’Leo, despite some ace comedic timing, doesn’t have much to do but provide comedy by acting older than he really is (think Hit-Girl from Kick Ass). When Agron and D’Leo meet up for lunch at school, they talk as if they’re business associates and not like brother and sister. If it’s supposed to be funny, I obviously missed the joke. Even more sickening is the fact that the only thing this family seems to have in common from one generation to the next is the impulse to beat the crap out of people who wrong them, be it DeNiro beating a shady plumber to a bloody pulp or Agron whacking the crap out of a horny classmate with a tennis racket.
Only Pfeiffer, still looking gorgeous at 55, elevates the material in a rare leading role. Sassy and genuine, she’s the only one who feels like a real family member and she inhabits the role with a feistiness that is comedic (her scenes with a priest are the only times I laughed out loud) and honest (you can’t help but love your mom despite all her neurotic tendencies). By the time the credits rolled the only thing I wanted was to see Pfeiffer more regularly on the big screen. Maybe that’s all I could’ve hoped for with Besson behind the camera – one good performance and several great uses of the “F” word. A classic? Hardly.
Review by Zack Sharf