Robert De Niro has reached the point in his career where he can play mobsters in his sleep. This probably explains why he seems so bored in “The Family” where he plays — you guessed it — a mobster hiding out in France in the witness protection program.
He’s said pretty much all there is to say about Brooklyn wise guys, which is probably why the only time there is even a twinkle of interest in his eye is during the moments when the movie winkingly references De Niro’s past performances in “The Untouchables,” “Analyze This” and (less winkingly, more super-duper-overtly) “Goodfellas.”
These little nods would lead you to believe that “The Family” is a comedy, and in a lot of ways that’s what it passes itself off as.
De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni who is tucked away in a small French village with his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), and son Warren (John D’Leo).
The wacky setup seems to be “Hey look, a hardnosed mob family is trying to fit in in a quaint French community.” With our four fish decidedly out of water, let the hilarity ensue. Maggie blows up a grocery store after a clerk is rude to her, Belle pummels an overzealous, would-be suitor and Warren racketeers his way through the high school.
Gio decides to pen his memoirs (filling in most of the backstory) while he fantasizes about violently rebuffing his snobby neighbors.
Tommy Lee Jones even pops up at his curmudgeonly best as Gio’s witness protection supervisor. There are a few laughs here and there, but it would be better to say that the tone trends towards being generally amusing; that is when it’s not extremely violent and bleak.
Some of Gio’s bone-breaking fantasies become reality, sprinkled in between some gangland executions and an explosive finale that features a body count that would impress Leatherface.
Not that I’m opposed to some good ol’ shoot-em-up violence, it’s just hard to get your bearings as “The Family” shifts frantically back and forth between giggles and gasps.
The movie was directed by Luc Besson who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Caleo. Besson has always gotten a wide berth from me for his sublimely brilliant neo-noir “The Professional” (which has been retitled “Leon: The Professional” in a mashup of the French and U.S. titles).
But that came out almost 20 years ago (!) so I suppose I can take him to task a little, mostly because “The Family” is so aimless and scattershot. Besson just doesn’t really have much to say here and it’s hard to care who gets whacked as none of the characters are really all that likable (with the exception of D’Leo, as I would watch a whole movie about Warren getting brought before the student council on RICO charges).
I think more than anything, this movie, and De Niro’s boredom prove that mob movies as a genre have become a bit of a dry well. From “The Godfather” to “The Sopranos” and all the Martin Scorsese in between, what else can cinematic organized crime say that feels fresh or improves upon what came before?
Maybe that’s why De Niro perked up when he was referencing his old movies; it’s nice to remember when goodfellas were relevant.
“The Family” is rated R for violence, language, and brief sexuality.