If mobster films such as Goodfellas portray a reality grounded glamorization of that violent lifestyle, then The Family is the version that abandons all logic opting for a route that seems derived from a Loony Tunes episode. This insanity reaches its apex when a rocket launcher blows up Robert De Niro’s house, to which he afterwards crawls out from underneath the rubble with only one thing to say; “F***”. It’s this satirical approach that makes the antics of the titular dysfunctional family so entertaining to watch.
Robert De Niro leads the ensemble cast playing the titular family’s gangster father, Giovanni Manzoni. The catch is that his family isn’t in the Mafia game anymore but rather exiled and marked for death with a $20 million bounty for snitching on the tightly knit organization. To ensure their safety, they are enrolled in a witness protection program and find themselves floating from locale to locale, or in this case a boring town in France. Theoretically, the family could settle down for good but well, discretion isn’t exactly a strong suit for a family that grew up engulfed in violence.
It’s not just Giovanni (renamed to Fred Blake by witness protection) that’s insane by the way, but rather his wife and two teenage children as well. This is all made abundantly clear too as on their first day Fred’s wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) blows up a grocery store just because she overheard the workers mocking America’s unhealthy eating habits. The children are also clearly too smart and dangerous for their own good as Belle (Dianna Agron) whacks the hell out of a pushy and horny teenage classmate with a tennis racket while Warren (John D’Leo) begins a carefully constructed embezzling system from within their school.
There is seemingly no sense of danger or consequence at all though for any of these actions, which equally hurts the film as it much it helps it. I can potentially suspend my disbelief that schoolyard antics don’t draw attention, but blowing up a grocery store for one big laugh and subsequently writing it out of the plot is just awkward. Fred even assaults a plumber and breaks his legs just because the aforementioned plumber cannot solve the dilemma of his family’s house tap water pouring out brown. There’s an incredibly humorous scene afterwards where Fred convinces a doctor that the plumber tripped and tumbled down the stairs, but even for a pseudo-serious action comedy it all feels far too contrived.
It’s a mystery how CIA Operative Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) even maintains his sanity tasked with assisting this group of lunatics in holding onto a low profile. Robert heightens the hilarity though as he plays off of Fred’s insane antics with masterful irritated deadpan delivery. Their pairing actually culminates with the funniest sequence of the movie too; Fred debating at a film event. I know that sounds relatively tame but there is an ingenious decision within the scene that is completely unexpected and truly hilarious.
While Robert De Niro and Tommy Lee Jones definitely provide the most and best laughs, every other character also feels identifiable and integral to the plot in their own way. Each family member gets their own memorable spotlight scene to shine in; it’s a tricky balancing act too that ensures the family is on equal footing even if Robert De Niro’s name heads the credits. It’s just that Robert De Niro hysterically stands out, essentially playing a brilliant caricature of his most iconic roles containing witty dialogue, his natural Mafioso charisma, and spot on comedic delivery,. Anyone and everyone that shares the screen with him ends up with their scene boosted into something special whether it’s through violence, smartass quips, or both simultaneously.
Unfortunately however, while the movie has endearing characters it’s also a slow burn that goes through too many unenthusiastic minor plot points at the speed of a glacier. There are just only so many scenes you can withstand built around the novelty of brown water before you start craving something refreshing. Belle’s character is also given a romantic subplot with a mathematics tutor that doesn’t only make for boring scenes, but completely disjointed scenes from the dysfunctional and violently humorous tone of the film.
The third act is completely all over the place however and shifts from darkly humorous to solely dark, complete with scenes I never expected from the film. It’s a shame too because the unwelcome transformation is juxtaposed with a greatly funny scene, but It’s just hard to swallow when the film keeps shifting to a plot thread that is arguably depressing. Thankfully the ending sequence does regain its footing though with focus and fun. I actually exited the theater hoping for a sequel.
Luc Besson (Director of Leon: The Professional and Producer on the Taken franchise) could have sat idly by collecting paychecks for a number of franchises he has blossomed into cash-cows from the ground up, but thankfully for us he seems to prefer broadening his horizons tackling different projects and genres. His latest addition to that resume, The Family isn’t a masterpiece by any means. It’s actually a rather disjointed film that just misses the mark on expertly blending violence and comedy into a strong narrative. What it does contain though are ruthlessly charming characters and a plethora of laughs.
The Family is in US Cinemas on September 13th.
This article was first posted on September 12, 2013