There is just enough to enjoy in Luc Besson’s pulpy, somewhat heavy-handed mob comedy The Family to keep it afloat, if not quite enough to warrant a ringing endorsement. One can just imagine the prolific filmmaker’s delight in finding a property that would entice Martin Scorsese to lend his name as executive producer and Robert De Niro to star. But this French production, filled with native actors who speak remarkably good English, feels artificial and second-hand; an imitation of a genuinely good mob movie.
The premise at its core, taken from a novel called Malavita, isn’t bad. Having turned informant on his own Brooklyn Mafia family, De Niro has had to enter the Witness Protection Program (along with his wife, son and daughter) and is forever being moved to new locations in France because he can’t keep his temper (or his mouth) in check. Their latest home is in Normandy.
The farcical implications of this situation are explored early on, with Michelle Pfeiffer giving an endearing and well-rounded performance as De Niro’s patient wife, who’s a devoted mother and a great cook. Dianna Agron and John D’Leo are also quite good as the teenagers who have had to learn to fend for themselves as the perpetual “new kids” in school who also happen to be foreigners. Tommy Lee Jones goes through the motions as the family’s exasperated FBI supervisor.
De Niro is a pleasure to watch in a role that calls on him to exercise his comedic chops with some degree of subtlety.
Yet The Family misses the bull’s-eye, in part because it’s so clearly a hybrid, made mostly in France with an eye toward American audiences. It resembles one of those tacky international co-productions of the 1960s or '70s that had to be dubbed because every key actor was speaking a different language.
But more damagingly, it’s a lazy film. In one scene, narrator De Niro outlines a Letterman-like “top 10” list of reasons he’s really a Nice Guy. The bullet-point moments that follow are neither funny nor revealing; why on earth shouldn’t they be? Similarly, his character’s relationship with his captor (Jones) is woefully underdeveloped. A late incident in which they wind up watching a famous gangster movie is just too precious for words.
The Family gets by because its stars are so professional and the story setup is intriguing. It’s too bad Besson and his colleagues (including screenwriting partner Michael Caleo) didn’t put in a bit more effort to give this stellar cast a film worthy of their talent and marquee names.