The term “dark comedy” used to mean a film or program that dealt with laughs but also discomforting adult situations and themes. For most filmmakers today, that now serves as a green light to portray death and violence with as little consequence or moral dimension whatsoever, giving protagonists a chance to guiltlessly resolve their complex problems with a little casual bloodshed. Slapstick has become so degraded that now all it takes is a blow to the head for directors to believe they’ve earned the audience’s approval, as if they are dogs yapping at the sensory stimulation. If that’s the case, then Luc Besson’s “The Family” is best left to the kennel.
Modern day Normandy proves to be the landing spot for this bomb, which casts Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfieffer as the heads of the Manzoni clan, mobsters who rolled over on their cohorts and have cycled their way through multiple Witness Protection Programs. De Niro’s Giovanni has a short fuse and a typically De Niro-ish way with nonverbal communication, but as the gabby, nagging Maggie, Pfieffer’s alpha female turn as the head of the Manzonis’ domestic situation suggests she has been responsible for burying her share of bodies.
It soon becomes clear that Giovanni and Maggie have failed to assimilate into past locations for the same reasons, which can be boiled down to the fact that they can’t stop murdering people. Luc Besson has directed his share of cartoonish action films (and he recently penned the two laughably lawless “Taken” pictures), but unlike previous efforts, here there seems to be a serious divide between the immorality of his protagonists and their likability. Giovanni is classic aged mob muscle who responds to a financial shakedown from a lowly plumber by beating him senseless. And when a market owner chastises Americans for being overweight, Maggie creates a makeshift explosive that surely takes multiple lives. Seeing Maggie at a McDonald’s afterwards chowing on a burger is meant to be the punchline.
It’s not enough that these two would be so ferocious: it’s also clear that they’re raising monsters. Young Warren (John D’Leo) has his father’s distinct birth mark and his mother’s acute sense of organization, turning his new school into a network of semi-criminal connections. And shapely, virginal Belle (Dianna Agron) responds to flirtation with brutal beatings, setting her sights on a polite local college student who frankly doesn’t deserve the baggage of sleeping with a girl under a false identity with her own unchecked history of violence. She contributes one of two beatings where characters “amusingly” thrash their victims until their blunt weapon breaks, therefore living up to the comedic rule that when it bends it’s funny, when it breaks, it’s not.
The title seems to suggest an equal focus on each member of the family (the source material is the novel “Malavita,” the name of the family dog). The only one who has any kind of arc is Giovanni, however, who, after spending time pretending to be someone else, relishes a chance to live up to his current cover as a writer by chronicling his memoirs. There’s a knowing awareness to the bits of prose that come from his typewriter, as his writing continues to insist he’s a “decent guy,” finding ways to explain away the multiple lives he took and the people who lived in fear of his reputation. “The Family” almost seems self-aware when it comments on the ways that art and literature give ways for audiences to excuse and even celebrate criminal behavior. A major third act joke harps on this, with Giovanni tricked into telling gangster stories to introduce a local screening of “Goodfellas” (har har!), which a host proclaims as a “beautiful” movie before locals whoop and holler at Giovanni’s criminal involvements.
That sequence occurs as Giovanni’s handler Robert Stansfield looks on dejectedly. As played by Tommy Lee Jones, his expression of wanting to be anywhere else doesn’t feel like acting: Jones looks like he’s sleepwalking through yet another stern authoritarian role, and his moments with De Niro should spark with tension, and not feel like two antagonistic members of a retirement home. Then again, maybe he was being directed to appear forlorn and tragic, as this film feels gamed to feel like a comedy long after it was filmed as a drama. The editing is awkwardly punchy to accommodate draggy reaction shots, and most scenes are punctuated by exceedingly distracting soundtrack choices. Why would a sexual tryst cue up the feelings similar to LCD Soundsystem’s “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down”? Why would an Italian cookout be accompanied by M’s “Pop Muzik”? And what commentary is being offered when a stack of indistinguishable goombahs tumble off a train to the sleepy sing-song of Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood”?
Besson used to be an unimpeachable director of sharp b-movies with a witty sense of violence and attitude. Did his semi-retirement years ago dull his senses? The evocation of “Goodfellas” incorrectly puts that film in the same category as “The Family” in wringing laughs out of popular gangster tropes, to the point where it raises questions about the judgment of executive producer Martin Scorsese. And the lovely French countryside feels like a chintzy set, the extras a bunch of sneering or grandstanding scene-stealers that wandered off from the set of some dreary sitcom. “The Family” is ultimately a headache, nearly two hours of baseball bat beatings and dull witticisms, with zero inventiveness or energy from the man who previously helmed films like “The Professional” and “The Fifth Element.” Just because one directs a film about the Witness Protection program doesn’t mean you have to direct as if you are in the Witness Protection Program. [D]