True, when I saw the trailers for THE FAMILY, I didn’t think much of it, but how could I not see a movie starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, two of my favorite actors? I like De Niro in pretty much anything he’s in, and way back when, Michelle Pfeiffer as the Catwoman in BATMAN RETURNS (1992) was the hottest thing going.
In spite of my misgivings about this movie, I was eager to see the two actors in action. That being said, THE FAMILY is a rather odd movie. Its tale of a former mobster hiding out in the witness protection program who has to move constantly because both he and his nutty family can’t seem to stop killing people has screwball comedy written all over it, but this isn’t the path this movie takes.
It follows a far more subtle path and tries to be a sophisticated comedy-drama that is oftentimes as elegant as the rich Italian dinners Pfeiffer’s character prepares. But the subtlety here is juxtaposed against both serious scenes of violence including some graphic mob hits, and comedic over-the-top ones, played for laughs, making this movie a difficult one to figure out. It’s as if the filmmakers weren’t sure what kind of movie they wanted to make— comedy, drama, comedy-drama, dark comedy, or nuttiness unchained— but one thing is for sure, regardless of intent, the whole thing would have worked better with a sharper script.
THE FAMILY opens with a jarring mob hit, as the underworld is out to get the former Giovanni Manzoni, a former mafia boss who ratted out his associates and now goes by the name Fred Blake (Robert De Niro). Blake and his family, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), teen daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and teen son Warren (John D’Leo), have relocated to Normandy, France, under the protection of CIA Agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones.)
Stansfield is frustrated with Blake because he can’t seem to stay out of the limelight, and as a result the CIA has to relocate him and his family every few months. Stansfield is fighting a losing battle, because it’s not only Blake— who goes out when he’s not supposed to, and talks openly with neighbors when he should be keeping a low profile— but his wife and kids. When the local store owner insults his wife Maggie, she turns around and blows up his store. When some boys try to take advantage of Belle, she beats them silly, and likewise, young Warren is up to no good in school as well, building up a criminal resume that would make his dad proud.
Because the Blakes are not subtle, it’s not that difficult for the mobsters to find them, and when they do, they send in a massive hit squad to wipe out Blake and his family. Of course, his family, being who they are, are not about to go down without a fight.
The biggest problem with THE FAMILY is it can’t make up its mind whether it’s a comedy or a drama. When Maggie blows up the store, it’s supposed to be funny. When the mob’s hit squad attacks the Blakes at the end of the movie, this part is played seriously, with ample tears, blood and death.
As a result, while earlier I had laughed here and there, during the ending, I wasn’t laughing at all, as thing were played straight.
The film could certainly have benefitted from stronger writing. The comedy could have been funnier and the drama darker.
Most of the comedy misfires. There’s a scene for example where De Niro’s Fred is signed up to give a talk about a movie, and it turns out to be GOODFELLAS (1990). This should be an uproarious moment, but it hardly garners a laugh.
One of the funnier gags is De Niro’s various uses of the F-word. When Maggie complains that he uses it too much, he explains that he has to because it has different meanings depending on the situation and on the way one says it. He goes on to demonstrate, in one of the film’s funnier scenes.
But the scenes with his teen children— and I hate to point this out, but isn’t De Niro a bit old to playing a dad of teen kids at this point?— mostly misfire. The humor is all off, and as a result in spite of some decent acting performances by Dianna Agron and John D’Leo, they’re not very likable characters. Plus Agron gets stuck in a subplot in which she has a crush on a student teacher that is about as realistic as an old BRADY BUNCH episode.
Luc Besson, who also directed, wrote the screenplay with Michael Caleo, based on the book by Tonino Benacquista. There are plenty of set-ups for some decent comedy, but time and time again the writing fails to deliver, and the jokes just don’t work. The story is also not dark enough to completely work as a drama either.
Besson has a ton of writing credits, so he has plenty of experience, but that didn’t seem to help him here. He fares better as a director, as I liked the look of this one, very polished, and it captures the mood of a gangster film.
A lot of emphasis is placed on food in this movie, from characters complaining about the rich creams of French food, to Michelle Pfeiffer going on about the benefits of olive oil, to elegant Italian dishes, to Robert De Niro preparing a barbecue. I found myself hungry by the time this one was over.
I did enjoy the two performances of the leads, Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. De Niro can play a mobster in his sleep by this point, and he’s certainly fun to watch here. I probably enjoyed Pfeiffer the most in this movie, as she cracked me up just with her fiery personality. Imagine how funny she could have been with a better script!
Tommy Lee Jones was good as well, but to a lesser degree since he enjoys far less screen time than De Niro and Pfeiffer. And again, both Dianna Agron and John D’Leo deliver decent performances as the Blake teen children, but the characters they play are rather annoying.
I would have enjoyed THE FAMILY far better had it either been flat out funny or a much darker drama, or even a well balanced mix of the two. As it stands, it’s an uneven hodgepodge of light and dark, a dish that’s not easy to digest, like that French cream poured on a barbecued burger served on a heap of olive oil pasta.