Judge Clark Douglas wants to fuggedabout this movie.
Some call it organized crime. Others call it family.
"Who's gonna rebuild the supermarket that burned down the day we got here?"
Facts of the Case
Once upon a time, Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver) was one of the most feared and respected gangsters on the East Coast. Alas, these days he's been reduced to a mere informant living an ordinary life in the Witness Protection Program. As his cover, Giovanni has adopted the identity Fred Blake, an American writer living in France with his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, Scarface) and two children (Dianna Agron, Glee and John D'Leo, The Wrestler). Though "Fred" and his family initially have trouble acclimating to their new surroundings, they eventually find a way to fit in with the local culture (or more frequently, find a way to make the local culture fit in with them). However, their humble-yet-peaceful existence will soon be shattered when some nasty figures from Giovanni's past come calling…
Luc Besson's The Family is one of the most tonally peculiar films I've seen recently—a mob-themed comedy that is surprisingly grim when it should be humorous and weirdly amused with itself during scenes that feel awfully grim. I suppose tonal experimentation is to be expected from Besson (remember his energetic, schizophrenic The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc?), but this one never really clicks. No matter what tone the film attempts to adopt, the whole thing is rooted in an obvious, predictable story that leans heavily on mafia flick stereotypes. The notion of Robert De Niro parodying movie gangsters was amusing back in 1999 when he starred in Analyze This, but enough already, man.
The central joke of The Family is that every member of the family approaches life like a gangster. Most of the first hour is devoted to sequences in which De Niro, Pfeiffer or one of the kids runs into some sort of problem and then proceeds to solve it in a violent or illegal fashion. It's mildly funny on a couple of occasions, but after a while it just starts feeling tired. Making matters worse, the actors are generally misused or poorly-cast: Pfeiffer is saddled with an unfortunate "Joisey" accent, and the kids never seem as convincingly tough as they're depicted. De Niro actually seems to be having a decent time with his role, but we've seen him play this role so often.
While the first two-thirds of the movie are presented as lightweight (albeit somewhat violent) comedy, the final third heads into thriller territory as the family fights back during an assault on their home. The movie tries to have some Looney Tunes fun with this sequence, but too much of it is too grim for the jokes to stick (in contrast, observe the brilliance of the "William Tell Overture"-enhanced train sequence towards the end of Gore Verbinski's underrated The Lone Ranger—a magnificent fusion of slapstick violence and physical comedy). Besson knows how to stage an action sequence (if you haven't seen Leon: The Professional, rectify that immediately), but we only see occasional glimmers of his talent in that department this time around.
The film's strongest performance comes from Tommy Lee Jones (No Country for Old Men), who plays the FBI agent in charge of keeping De Niro's family safe. Jones' crusty world-weariness is as effective as ever, and his presence seems to inspire De Niro to push a little harder (the two end up generating an enjoyably antagonistic comic chemistry). For my money, the high point is a metatextual sequence that arrives somewhere just past the halfway point. As a supposed esteemed American author, De Niro is asked to preside over a local movie club discussion. The movie: Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. The look on De Niro's face when the film begins is priceless—I don't know that I've ever seen him quite so joyful. It's a goofy and self-indulgent scene, but it's also distinctive and funny in a way that the rest of the film isn't.
The Family (Blu-ray) has received a stellar 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that showcases the film's attractive French locations. Save for the action sequences that bookend the film, it's generally a bright, sunny affair with lots of colorful scenery. Detail is consistently strong, depth is exceptional and flesh tones are natural. Blacks are deep and inky, too. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track has a lot of oomph when it needs to, and elsewhere finds a nice balance between the assorted elements. Supplements include a making-of featurette (a typical 10-minute EPK affair), a childish montage of every time the film employs the F-bomb and a trailer. Oh, and a DVD/Digital Copy. Meh.
A talented director wastes a talented cast on an odd, generally unfunny mob comedy. Jones and a handful of stray scenes are solid, but that's not enough.
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