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Review: Luc Besson’s ‘The Family’ Starring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer & Tommy Lee Jones

Review: Luc Besson's 'The Family' Starring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer & Tommy Lee Jones

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
” 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

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
’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
. 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]  

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