“The Family” is a film that tries to be a laugh out loud gangster flick with a deep story and lots of character development. It only succeeds in a few of these areas, but it is in those areas that “The Family” works very well.
Luc Besson of “Léon: The Professional” and “La Femme Nikita” fame takes the lead role of director, and along with the help of the legendary Martin Scorsese, we have “The Family”. This is the story of Fred Blake (Robert De Niro), or Giovanni Manzoni, or whatever his name is this week. He is forced to change his name and where he lives pretty constantly because his family is in the witness protection program. This week in the lives of the “Blake” family, they find themselves in Normandy, France. What exactly Giovanni did to upset his mob ties is never explicitly said, and we work under the assumption that he ratted out some of the higher-ups in the mob hierarchy. This is all good and well, but some audience members might feel left out never knowing exactly why the Manzoni family lives in a never-changing state of flux.
Giovanni shows murderous traits throughout “The Family” and we firmly believe he is capable of a lot of bad stuff. While his family likely didn’t participate in mob activities back in the day, they all seem to have learned violent tendencies. Giovanni’s wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) has interest in traveling and sight-seeing to get her mind off of her unpredictable lifestyle, and despite her attempts to return to the Catholic church (the only familiar thing that she sees can bring her family to safety), has a short temper that can burn down a grocery store within a few moments; a fun joke, unfortunately ruined by the movie’s trailer. Giovanni’s daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) is a righteous fox, searching for her future soul mate. She is the kind of girl you have to worry about getting hit on by the wrong crowd, but she is also the kind of girl you don’t have to worry about the safety of. In other words: she can take care of herself. Finally, John D’Leo plays Gio’s son. Imagine a snarky, too intelligent for his age 16-year-old drug kingpin who recognizes, and then runs a high school’s black market within the period of a week, and you have Warren Blake. This is the “Blake” family, and we feel like we know them pretty well by the end of “The Family”.
Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is Giovanni’s parole officer of sorts and tries to keep him out of trouble. They bicker back and forth and never did you think you would see two greats like Jones and De Niro get so old and complain about one another with such comedic contempt. It’s really quite funny, and I might add that you would never expect the “F” bomb to have so many uses and become such a versatile word in the mouth of De Niro.
Of course the family tries to adjust to life in France, and while it’s all good fun, “The Family” is haunted by an emotional roller coaster that the audience may never have even bought tickets for. In one moment, a character is head over heels for a french boy who breaks her heart, and the next moment Giovanni is breaking a wooden bat over the kneecap of a greedy plumber, and then deeply contemplating a future career in writing. Again, with comedy, “The Family” delivers. With keeping us engaged, and following and tracking with the characters, perhaps not so much. One might argue that these extreme moments are used only to push the comedy along, and I would tend to agree with that viewpoint.
The original score here feels a bit forced, and overall, pretty cheesy. It maybe doesn’t work so well. You can tell Besson worked under Scorsese’s tutelage to some extent when exploring popular music themes throughout “The Family”. The Rolling Stones have a way of making music that never seems to perform poorly in film.
I saw “The Family” with two girls, who haven’t been introduced to great gangster classics like “Goodfellas” or “The Godfather”. Despite the black comedy, and sometimes randomly violent bits of “The Family”, I realized that this movie actually could work quite well as an introduction to crime films for those who haven’t seen them. We see some of the violence, and we hear the lingo and accents, and while it’s sometimes over the top, it never feels like too much. “The Family” is almost a more family friendly “The Untouchables” in some very strange way. Eh, but don’t have a family screening of “The Godfather” with your five-year-olds after reading this review.
“The Family” is a good watch for some crime-based black comedy laughs, but may be more widely accessible once it hits DVD and Blu-Ray.
*SPOILER* In closing, I might add that De Niro’s character ends up sharing his life story at a film critique of “Goodfellas” in France. It hits you the hardest when the opening notes of Tony Bennet’s “Rags to Riches” sounds out loud on-screen, and it’s possibly one of the biggest laugh out loud moments I’ve seen in quite a while. I never really thought about pop culture inside of pop culture… Pop-cultureinception, if you will. *SPOILER*