I was hoping this might be Luc Besson back on form after years of mediocrity, but disappointingly THE FAMILY is mostly more of the same.
The Blakes aren’t like any other family. They spend their lives changing their name, moving on and starting again, all because their patriarch (Robert De Niro) is a known and ruthless mobster. When he upsets the wrong people, he and his loved ones are driven into hiding and a nomadic existence. Their latest destination is a sleepy village in northern France, where they must blend in fast to avoid detection by their deadly former associates.
De Niro is looking startlingly like Topol in his twilight years. He seems to be trying to meet his critics head-on by playing a parody of one of his go-to character archetypes. Michelle Pfeiffer seems stuck in a rut of playing eccentric, slightly past their prime matriarchs (see also: DARK SHADOWS), and it would be nice to see her given an opportunity to stretch herself again. John D’Leo is pretty funny as Warren, the world-weary son who has known all the tricks of the organised crime trade from an early age, and sees the wider world firmly in these terms, building his own little empire in his new school, plus he looks just like a diddy De Niro. Dianna Agron is a little one-note as the daughter Belle, but it’s a refreshing tweak to formula that she effectively functions as the family’s muscle. Tommy Lee Jones looks permanently disinterested in everything his character, an FBI agent assigned to watch over the family, says and does, and blatantly recycles Agent K’s mannerisms, but he’s easily the most entertaining presence in the film, snarling and wisecracking his way through every scene he’s in.
Everyone’s stereotyped to within an inch of their lives – the Americans are brash and unsophisticated, the French are rude, obnoxious and obsessed with women, the Italians miss Mama’s cooking and don’t like the French. Now obviously, Luc Besson is French, and De Niro is Italian-American, so they’re essentially “in on” these portrayals, and are being pretty good-natured about it, but what about their audience? I’m struggling to think of any positive portrayals of Frenchmen in a film Luc Besson has been involved in over the last decade, and there’s a point where good-humoured self-deprecation becomes plain old self-loathing.
I’m also not sure Besson quite grasps what black comedy is. Showing a plumber being beaten with a baseball bat doesn’t become funny because De Niro is deadpanning over it, or because a lot of people don’t like plumbers. Dark stuff can be funny, but there has to be heart to go with the humour to strike a chord, and The Family, for the most part, lacks this.
The film doesn’t do itself any favours belonging to a pretty short list of movies about mobsters in the witness protection programme. Obviously, the key example of this kind of film is GOODFELLAS, and who in their right mind would invite comparisons to that De Niro-starring Scorsese masterpiece? Luc Besson, that’s who! One scene actually has De Niro’s character watching the film with his eyes alight with excitement, following an introduction by an intellectual film society’s host (who conveniently glosses over who stars in it). Some were apparently pretty offended by this postmodern, intertextual joke, as if it somehow undermined Goodfellas, but I just see it as just another gag that wasn’t particularly well executed, and De Niro clearly didn’t have a problem being part of it (plus Scorsese executive produced), and it’s almost worth it to see Jones’s Stansfield squirming at what Blake might blurt out about the film’s “authenticity” following the screening. Besson also unwisely references his own masterpiece LEON, in an opening scene almost identical to his 90s crime-buddy-movie.
There are a few amusing moments, such as Warren’s rapid-fire deconstruction of school cliques, and the phone call where Belle is dumped by a tutor she is besotted with, while being listened to, and gossiped over by the family’s bodyguards. There are also some (probably) unintentionally funny points in the film, like a Mafia hit squad arriving in a small French town dressed exactly like a Mafia hit squad (with the addition of parkour founder David Belle who’s been drafted in seemingly just to do a single agile flip in the big action sequence at the end). De Niro can’t, and never has been able to do comedy, but he can say the F-word in a variety of ways to express many different things, as his children admiringly acknowledge. The children are also responsible for the film’s lone touching scene, but it can’t quite justify the rest of the movie being so emotionless.
The Family isn’t bad – Luc Besson has certainly been involved with worse films – but it’s a little underwhelming. It raises a few smiles, it’s pretty well filmed, and it’s worth watching for entertaining turns from Tommy Lee Jones and John D’Leo. But maybe Besson needs to learn to love his nation a little more, and give his scripts a few more passes before putting them before the camera. Also, perhaps De Niro and Pfeiffer need to sit down with their agents and work out when an audience is laughing at them, not with them, and even agree to start passing on the “easy” scripts altogether. SSP