A dark comedy based on a novel about a mafia family in the witness protection program hiding out in France, “The Family” would seem to have a lot going for it: an affable premise, stars with long experience in the mafia genre and a director known for bridging the gap between French and American cinema.
Sadly, if you’re unfortunate enough to buy a ticket, you’ll find that “The Family” adds up to quite a bit less than the sum of its parts.
For starters, “The Family” can’t decide whether the characters are meant to be satire delivery vehicles or actual humans. Michelle Pfeiffer (as an aging mafia bride hiding from the law under the name Maggie Blake) is particularly guilty on this score, if only because she’s too committed as an actress to play a character without a shred of humanity. Her co-star Robert De Niro, as Fred Blake (formerly Giovanni Manzoni), has no such qualms about mugging for the camera, and, by extension, mugging his audience.
Director Luc Besson is continually altering the look of the movie to fit momentary moods, but it plays like an overlay of Instagram filters. Flat institutional light for schools, gauzy Kodachrome haze for flashbacks to the old days in Brooklyn, and a menacing, unearthly darkness when violence is threatening. He uses a whimsical technique for cuts between scenes that telegraphs the action to come.
Finally, the movie tries to exploit novelistic devices that don’t translate well to film. Some of the backstory is given in flashbacks as Giovanni writes his memoirs, but these reflections are incoherent and serve just as a platform for some mafia set pieces involving a lot of oversized actors stuffed into silk suits.
“The Family” takes place sometime between the introduction of the cell phone and the adoption of the euro, and tracks a nuclear family along the lines of “The Sopranos.” In addition to Giovanni and Maggie, there’s Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo). They’re watched over by their case officer Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), who winces his way through this generic, throwaway part. The four family members rely on violence to interact with the world. Giovanni’s first act when they arrive in their new digs in Normandy is to bury the body of a grocer with whom he’s had a dispute in their backyard. Maggie explodes a can of butane in a supermarket after overhearing the shopkeeper gossiping with some townspeople about the poor eating habits of Americans. Belle disfigures a creepy suitor with a tennis racket, while the slightly diminutive Warren connives to get others to do his fighting for him.
Perhaps French audiences will enjoy watching rural villagers terrorized by the impulses of their American interlopers. The Blakes more often than not do have grounds for their rages, but they have a tendency to mete out disproportionate punishment, and the more violent “The Family” gets, the less funny it is.
TITLE: “The Family”
CREDITS: Directed by Luc Besson; written by Mr. Besson and Michael Caleo; based on the novel “Badfellas” by Tonino Benacquista.
RATING: R for violence, language and sexual situations.
RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS