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The Family

The Family stars Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Tommy Lee Jones in a mob film. It was co-written and directed by Luc Besson, under the auspices of exec-producer Martin Scorsese. With a pedigree like this, the film is bound to be worth a look, right?

…Well, I’ll certainly grant that it’s watchable.

The premise for the film is simple. DeNiro plays Giovanni Manzoni, a lifelong mobster with a wife (Maggie, played by Pfeiffer) and two kids (Warren and Belle, respectively played by John D’Leo and Glee girl Dianna Agron). There’s also a dog, because of course. Anyway, Giovanni turned on his criminal associates some time ago, which means that the whole family had to be put into witness protection. Alas, they have to travel to a different international location every 90 days or so, because it seems that no one in this family can give up being a criminal for very long. Tommy Lee Jones’ character is the unlucky FBI agent tasked with keeping the family safe and undercover.

Our film opens with the Manzoni family heading to their latest home in Normandy (A Luc Besson film set in France? What a shock!). Unfortunately, we very quickly learn that the town is occupied by a bunch of idiot hicks who all seem very bigoted against Americans. Naturally, this doesn’t blend well with the Manzonis’ violent temperaments and steadfast refusal to let any insult slide. So property is destroyed, people get grievously harmed, and hilarity ensues.

I could sympathize with Jones’ character, because who on earth would want to be in charge of keeping this family under control? Aside from him, it’s mob bosses after a family of violent criminals who are tearing apart a town of assholes. There is not a single sympathetic character in the bunch. I’ll grant that it makes for good comedy, since it’s always fun to watch horrible people suffer accordingly. The film certainly works as a comedy, though I’m not completely sure that’s what the filmmakers were going for.

In fact, I don’t really know what this film was trying to accomplish. The film is equal parts comedy, family drama, and action film, but it doesn’t really excel at any one of those genres. I’ll show you what I mean.

There’s an exchange between Giovanni and Maggie about halfway through the movie. She’s giving him crap because the plumber they called turned out to be a crook, and Giovanni beat him half to death for it. He responds by talking about the grocery store that just happened to blow up the day they arrived. And then they start making out. Yes, they were just arguing about some terrible crimes they committed, and they go straight from there to getting frisky. I can’t begin to tell you how this makes sense, because it doesn’t.

When the film’s disparate genres aren’t actively interfering with each other, they’re being held together with chewing gum and spit. By far the best example comes at the one-hour point, when this film takes off and nukes the shark from orbit. This is the point when the mob bosses discover the family’s location, which of course had to happen at some point in this picture. Yet this film delivers that plot point with the most contrived, ridiculous, implausible, idiotic, transparently bullshit sequence of events that I’ve ever seen on film.

I’d feel perfectly justified giving the film a failing grade just for that one unforgivable sequence, but there’s still a lot to like here. There’s no denying that the cast is extraordinary, and the actors all play off each other very well. It goes without saying that Pfeiffer nails it as a beautiful woman with a mile-wide vindictive streak, but she also plays the matron quite well.

Even so, I personally thought that the kids were the real standouts here. I had never heard of John D’Leo before, but he does a fantastic job playing a budding criminal mastermind. Meanwhile, Dianna Agron does an outstanding job going from teenage beauty to kickass beast and back again at the drop of a hat. Moreover, Belle also gets a romance arc that develops the basic premise in an interesting way, even if it was delivered with way too much melodrama.

Strangely, the two weak links in the cast are Robert DeNiro and Tommy Lee Jones. Then again, these are still two great actors. They could read the complete works of L. Ron Hubbard at each other and somehow find a way to make it compelling. Also, I don’t think it helps that the two characters are supposed to be low-key by design. Jones’ character, after all, is the one who’s supposed to keep everything according to plan, which means that he and Giovanni stay invisible and out of harm’s way. Naturally, the film really has to struggle in finding things for these characters to do.

In Giovanni’s case, this means taking on a polluted water problem that’s good for essentially nothing except a few laughs. He also takes up writing his memoirs, which is a whole other bucket of issues. For starters, I was under the impression that Giovanni and his family were in witness protection. If this is the very first time Giovanni has ever gone on record about his criminal past, then why is he in witness protection?

In fact, that’s another question that needs to be asked: How exactly did the family come to be in this predicament, anyway? Who did Giovanni put in prison and how? What does the family know that’s so valuable? It would’ve been nice for Giovanni to tell us this stuff, instead of going on about his criminal past and telling us a bunch of stuff we never needed to know. If nothing else, it would’ve been nice to know what we stand to lose if the family is killed. The film really should’ve had a backup plan to establish stakes, because — as I’ve already stated — the family is so unsympathetic that I didn’t really care if they lived or died. In fact, one could argue that the world would be better off without these people.

I normally respect a film that mixes genres (see: The Cabin in the Woods, Detention, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) but The Family is an example of what happens when a genre-blending experiment doesn’t take. It tries to be a comedy and a family drama and an action film, but none of these parts mesh into anything consistently enjoyable. Still, though the tone varies wildly and the narrative gets unforgivably thin, there’s no denying that the cast is very good and there are some good laughs throughout. That’s good enough to recommend a rental, I’d say.

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