A good movie is trapped inside “The Family,” French director Luc Besson’s comedy-drama-confused hyphenate. Occasionally, the actors briefly emerge from the layers of shtick and camp to reveal what we’re missing. Then Robert De Niro beats a plumber with a wrench and everyone is back behind bars.
De Niro’s character, Giovanni Manzoni, was a big shot in the New York mob until he turned rat. Now, Giovanni and his family – renamed the Blakes – move through France under the watchful eye of Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), their Witness Protection Program supervisor.
Normandy is the latest fresh start. The kids, 14-year-old Warren (John D’Leo) and 17-year-old Belle (a very non-paisana Dianna Agron), head to school, where they immediately wreak their special brand of havoc. Wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) can’t find her place, whether it’s at the grocery store (which she torches after the cashier insults her) or church. Giovanni putters around the house, discovers a typewriter, and starts banging out his memoirs.
Writing only occupies some of his time. Soon, Giovanni is resolving the ancient house’s brown water issue…mob-style. Besson also can’t find his focus, so “The Family” feels incomplete and, worse, inattentive. Sometimes it’s about adjusting to the sleepy charms of small-town France. Every once in a while, you’re led to believe it’s about living life under constant surveillance, which is great because Jones’ laconic charm and De Niro’s brusque cool battle it out.
And won’t someone please think of the children? Warren makes allies through graft and corruption; Belle, who is as consistent as March weather, takes time out from pummeling handsy suitors to seduce (and fall in love with) her math tutor, a creepy arrangement that is played straight. Besson’s inability to corral these elements into anything cohesively entertaining is stunning; “The Family” is so fragmented that its script is probably in Morse code. At least twice he blows surefire punch lines, including Maggie’s visit to confessional. We don’t see the visit, but we see the priest’s reaction – which occurs so long after the setup that the whole joke is rendered anticlimactic.
Besson has displayed a deft touch with amoral characters before, namely in 1994’s “The Professional,” where he turned the relationship between a hitman and his infatuated 12-year-old protégé into a heartbreaking tale of en loco parentis. “The Family” has moments like that: Jones and De Niro’s annoyed banter, Pfeiffer waxing about olive oil with the two suits who track her family’s every move. The acting carries the movie, yet too often Besson and Michael Caleo’s script does the heavy lifting, trying to win us over with its ah-those-barbaric-Americans shtick. They love peanut butter and solve their problems with violence and vulgarity!
It’s a movie of short cuts, including Besson’s insistence that every family member is thuggish, which traps the movie in the same mildly amusing joke. (Also baffling: not taking full advantage of Jones’ crustiness.) At its best, “The Family’s” cast drapes its well-worn performances over you like a blanket on Sunday morning. But Besson is in such a rush to get to the next punch line that he doesn’t realize that the actors are actually saving the film from his own rudderless approach.
Rating: W W
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