'The Family': De Niro and Pfeiffer coast agreeably on the coast of France
Mixing equal portions culture clash, criminal behavior and family dynamics, "The Family" has a lot going on. Luc Besson directs, having proven both real cinematic talent in the films he's directed ("The Professional," "La Femme Nikita") and true entrepreneurial moxie in the films he's produced ("Taken," "The Transporter"). Stars Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer each give lead performances that partially follow their past work, with Dianna Agron and John D'Leo, as their kids, prove surprisingly lively supporting players. Adapted from Tonino Benacquista's novel "Malavita," the plot hinges on an all-American family led by De Niro's not-so-goodfella Giovanni Manzoni, who decided to leave his life of organized crime while alive by ratting out all of his friends a while back. Witness Relocation -- that oh-so-convenient plot-starter and joke-farm for so many scripts -- has most recently put the Manzoni family in Normandy, on a grayer coast of France.
The Manzoni's -- or, rather, the Blakes, now saddled with the most blandly non-Italian name imaginable by glum Fed Tommy Lee Jones -- are advised to try and get along in their small town near Normandy. It's too bad that the Blakes not only stick out like sore thumbs but are also fully capable of making your thumbs sore through breaking them if they consider it required. The French locals -- who fumblingly clutch for Agron's shoulder straps, or mercilessly mock Pfeiffer for asking about peanut butter at the local shop -- provide plenty of reason for decisive action and brutal reprisals on the part of the Manzoni's. Boiled down, "The Family" is the cross-pollination of the Sopranos and the Griswolds, as one more variation on the modern pop-culture Mob family mixes with a sort of lightly xenophobic set of yuks and gags straight out of "National Lampoon's European Vacation."
Besson directs with a light and loose hand here, and part of the film's pleasures come as the Blake family admonishes each other about language at the dinner table or simply acts like a family and not like parts on a plot. Besson also has a great control of tone as he mixes brute-force suspense with character-driven comedy, like the intercut moment where DeNiro's Fred Blake becomes the toast of the local Cinematheque the same night killers come to town. When the gunplay kicks in, as both fate and the three-act structure of commercial film tell us it must, Besson can still stage quick, propulsive scenes where the action and consequence and bullets and debris are cut and shaped until their chaos becomes his choreography.
Besson wrote the screenplay alongside Michael Caleo, and if the film ever approaches greatness -- as opposed to mere goodness -- it's in the quieter, darker ideas and thoughts roaming around the margins of the screenplay. Specifically, it's scary and funny to watch sociopaths stay within social norms; the Manzonis, or, rather, the Blakes, are a having hard time trying to adjust and fit in because they're on the run and in France, to be sure, but also because they're awful, self-centered monsters. And the film's portrait of organized crime as a set of interpersonal rivalries carried out through international homicide also hits the right note as somehow both epic and squalid.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.