In making the Mafia comedy, The Family, Luc Besson and Martin Scorsese seem to have set out to have some fun with their more typical hard-boiled gangster fare. Their inside jape is unfortunately not as much fun for the audience as it may have been for the filmmakers, though it does have its piquant moments. But it’s not consistently entertaining enough either as a spoof or as a thriller to soar to box office glory.
Besson directed and co-wrote the screenplay, and Scorsese acted as executive producer, and it’s easy to see references to The Professional and Goodfellas. Actually, Goodfellas is mentioned overtly in an amusing scene where Robert De Niro’s gangster-in-hiding in a village in Normandy is invited to address the local film club on Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running. But the wrong film arrives, and he has to pontificate on Goodfellas instead. Needless to say, he relishes the task.
De Niro plays an aging version of characters he created in Goodfellas and Casino. This time he is Giovanni Manzoni, an ex-Mafioso who decided to spill the beans on all his criminal connections. The FBI has put him and his family in a witness protection program and sent them to France. There they are ordered to lead a quiet life and not call attention to themselves. But they can’t quite leave their violent ways behind them. Giovanni, now known as Fred Blake, is not used to arguing politely with unaccommodating French plumbers and businessmen. The same is true of his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), teenage daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D’Leo). This gang is like the Soprano family abroad, and the humor comes from their impatience at trying to behave like a meek brood of American tourists.
The best scene aside from the Goodfellas dissertation is one that has already been showcased in the movie’s trailer—a shopping expedition that ends with Maggie blowing up the store in response to the arrogance of the snooty French merchants. Belle and Warren prove to be just as deadly to their antagonists at the local lycee.
While the family is adjusting uneasily to their new digs in France, imprisoned gangsters back home are trying to locate the snitching family and wipe them out. So there’s a chase element added to the fish-out-of-water comedy. These tones never really mesh successfully. he violence is excessive for a film that’s essentially conceived as a comedy, and although the final gun battle between the family and their enemies is well executed, it seems to come from a different, far more conventional movie.
The actors intermittently salvage the picture. De Niro has played straight gangster roles and comic gangster roles, so this part isn’t exactly a stretch, and at times his weariness is visible. But he has fun in scenes where Giovanni decides that he has a new career as a memoirist. The best reason to see the film is to catch Pfeiffer in a rare leading role. She looks great, and although her Brooklyn accent occasionally vanishes, she gives a stylish and funny performance reminiscent of her fine work in Married to the Mob 25 years ago. Agron, best known as the head cheerleader on Glee, matches up well with Pfeiffer and savors a rare opportunity to play the bad girl. D’Leo also demonstrates commendable comic chops as the kid brother. One scene in which he discusses how many nuances Dad can give to the F-word is a choice bit.
Tommy Lee Jones brings his considerable presence to the role of the FBI agent watching over the family, but there’s only so much a fine actor can do with such an underwritten role. Most of the supporting players don’t register vividly either.
Besson does a good job capturing the stultifying ambience of a nondescript French village that is a long way from the picturesque towns featured in Michelin guidebooks. All technical credits are solid. Unfortunately, when the blood starts to flow, as it does all too frequently, the laughs curdle.
Opens: Friday, Sept. 13 (Relativity Media).
Cast: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Jimmy Palumbo, Domenick Lombardozzi.
Director: Luc Besson.
Screenwriters: Luc Besson, Michael Caleo.
Based on the novel by: Tonino Benacquista.
Producers: Virginie Besson-Silla, Ryan Kavanaugh.
Executive producers: Martin Scorsese, Tucker Tooley.
Director of photography: Thierry Arbogast.
Production designer: Hugues Tissandier.
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine.
Costume designer: Olivier Beriot.
Editor: Julien Rey.
Rated R, 111 minutes.