The Family is about a four-piece Brooklyn mafia family that is moving to Normandy, France, as a part of the FBI witness relocation program. It is written and directed by Luc Besson (with co-writer Michael Caleo), executive produced by Martin Scorsese, and stars Robert De Niro. Frankly, all three of them should have known better. One would think that after decades of making excellent movies (many of which are in the gangster genre) that they could smell a dud but, apparently, that isn’t so. Not every movie works, but most work better than this.
De Niro’s Giovanni Manzoni, an ex-mob boss that ratted out the mafia, leads the family in question. In a series of flashbacks and a few hints here and there, Giovanni seems to be a combination of Vito Corleone (kind and protective—a businessman) and Tommy from Goodfellas (quick-tempered with an awful lot of blood on his hands). His wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter (Dianna Agron), and son (John D’Leo) all follow in his footsteps, and within their first day in Normandy, they torch a grocery store, brutally beat a womanizer with a tennis racket, and plot revenge on the school bullies. Talk about working quickly. Giovanni is also not one for lying low and, in the course of his stay, beats a plumber into submission and tortures a middle manager of a corporation. All the while, the FBI Agent (Tommy Lee Jones) assigned to protect them shakes his head, cursing Giovanni and his family. You can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Old habits die hard. The family that slays together stays together, etc. Clichés abound.
The main problem with the movie (there are several) is that it fails to ever establish a consistent tone. Hopping back and forth between drama, comedy, graphic violence, melodrama, even a quick meta-moment that make absolutely no sense, the movie is about a still as a child with ADD hopped up on caffeine and sugar. There are scenes where the movie wants to show these characters as ruthless psychopaths but tries to inject a little playful humor. In one scene, Giovanni confronts a middle manager only to have him cut him off mid-sentence. The next scene shows the aftermath: Giovanni has tied the man to his car and drug him along the highway for God-knows how long. Giovanni stops the car and calmly explains that he doesn’t like to be interrupted and goes on to explain the problem with his water. De Niro plays the scene for comedy, and had the camera stayed on him; it might have worked. But it doesn’t. It maintains a basic shot-reverse shot with the victim, completely eliminating all humor in the scene as the man is missing large portions of his skin and, in all likelihood, is going into shock and will die. This is merely one of many scenes where I was both repulsed and bored but primarily confused. Just what were they trying to get at here?
Earlier this summer, I watched a forgotten film from the 70s, Pocket Money. The movie was forgotten for very good reasons but starred Paul Newman and Lee Marvin, who are always good. I felt they deserved better. I feel the same way about Robert De Niro and Tommy Lee Jones. Both are phenomenal actors who simply deserve better. It might have started with the script, which might be set in the late 90s, possibly the turn of the century; regardless, it feels like it was written in the late 90s and has been gathering dust ever since. Maybe another pass could have helped it. Maybe a pass altogether could have helped. On paper, it sure looks like a movie: good cast, decent concept, and backed by real talent. Too bad it all went wonky on the way to the screen. I really could have done something else with those two hours.
The Family (2013)
Directed By: Luc Besson
Written By: Luc Besson & Michael Caleo based on the book by Tonino Benacquista
Produced By: Luc Besson, Ryan Kavanaugh, Virginie Silla
Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Tommy Lee Jones
Relativity Media, Running time 110 minutes, Rated R, Released September 13, 2013.