Great cast and good writing not enough to carry mob flick
By Tim Pompey 09/26/2013
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo
Rated R for violence, language and brief sexuality
1 hr. 51 min.
There’s a fine balance in comedy between effort and success. Sometimes you have to work at it. Sometimes you have to let it come to you. Sometimes it’s the premise. Sometimes it’s the writing. Whatever the elements, the bottom line is that comedy needs out-of-the-box inspiration and a certain amount of craziness to work.
In The Family you get a smorgasbord of comedy: good cast, capable director, wacky premise, decent writing. Unfortunately, the elements don’t seem to add up. Mildly amusing sometimes. Witty on occasion. But funny? Maybe a little, but not the laugh-out-loud picture I had hoped for. It’s more like a sniggerfest.
Giovanni Manzoni, aka Fred Blake (Robert De Niro), is a mob boss from Brooklyn who has ratted on his criminal associates and helped put them in prison. Now he and his family — wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), son Warren (John D’Leo) and daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) — are under the care of the federal witness protection program and have been relocated to a small town in Normandy, France.
France, you ask? Yes, France. As such, they all must adjust to living life the French way. Different language, different food and a definite look-down-your-nose attitude toward Americans.
It turns out that in this family, everyone has certain well-traveled mob instincts that create problems for FBI supervisor Robert Stansfield (Tommie Lee Jones). Fred likes to hurt people whom he considers rude. Maggie has a thing for bombs. Demure-looking Belle has a psychotic side. Young Warren has an instinct for doing business da Capo way.
Together they go about their daily routines and wreak havoc on the town, drawing attention to themselves and, much to the consternation of Stansfield, making it easy for enemies like former mob boss Don Luchese (Stan Carp) to track them down. Bang, bang.
French director Besson, whose reputation is well-known for action films such as The Fifth Element, plays down his usual fireworks, choosing instead to focus on the satiric “normality” of the Blakes.
But satire is only funny if the writing draws out the contrast. In this case, it isn’t quite sharp enough to break through. The result is that most of the time, The Family feels like a four-cylinder engine that is only hitting on three cylinders. It’s trying, it’s moving, but not smooth enough or fast enough to work well.
Add to this the fact that the ending turns dark and violent. Suddenly, the humor gets dropped in favor of what Besson seems most comfortable with: action. This turns out to be a good thing and helps raise the film’s energy level, but any attempt to be comedic is dropped.
There are a few good moments that show what this film could have done to make it more successful. For instance, when Belle gets accosted by some French boys and uses a tennis racket to share a lesson about being respectful toward women. Or when Fred gets invited to watch and discuss an American film with his French neighbors. The film? Goodfellas. Fred actually claimed he was on the set. Funny.
The Family had great potential. The director tried. The cast tried. The writer tried. Even the French tried. Everyone tried to make this film funny. It came close, due in large part to the quality of the actors involved, but in this case, close is not good enough. In truth, this family is portrayed as so routine that their daily mishaps seems blasé, ho hum, all in a day’s work.
To use a sports analogy, football fans always expect that when their team is on the one-yard line, they should be able to score. With the talent that The Family brought to the field, I couldn’t help but expect the same thing. It didn’t happen. I left the stadium disappointed.