A Mediocre Family Gathering: Despite Showing Hints of Potential, "The Family" Ultimately Fails
Luc Besson has produced, written, and directed some of the most entertaining and pulse pounding films of the last two-plus decades, among them Leon: The Professional; Taken (and its sequel); The Fifth Element; and The Transporter series. However, even with a track record like that it’s possible to misfire and unfortunately, The Family misses the target.
The story centers on Brooklyn mobster Fred Blake/Givoanni Manzoni (Robert DeNiro) who, after surviving a near hit, turns in evidence that puts high-ranking mobster Don Luchese (Stan Carp) in prison and force Manzoni, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and children Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo), into witness protection in Normandy, France, with new identities. Each member of the re-christened “Blake” family is amoral in their own right and, due their own individual criminal shenanigans, are relocated on a regular basis much to the consternation of FBI agent and handler Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).
It sounds like a typical “culture shock” story, but given the film’s artistic pedigree (a story is written by Besson with an assist by screenwriter Michael Caleo, with the entire venture overseen by producer Martin Scorsese, who knows a thing or two about mobsters) one would expect the premise would be given an interesting overhaul. However, the whole film is woefully disjointed. It’s not that it is not enjoyable; it’s just uninspired.
In the past, Besson has deftly juggled humor, dark or otherwise, with action and suspense as any of the aforementioned films can attest to. Yet here those tonal shifts are discordantly jarring. The comedy, while effective in parts, is derived primarily from the actors and the audience’s familiarity with them and, more importantly, their acting “quirks”. DeNiro is essentially playing DeNiro. Ms. Pfieffer basically repurposes her Married to the Mob character, though she does manage to give Maggie a bit more bite that would give The Sopranos’ Carmela Soprano pause. Tommy Lee Jones seems to be on autopilot these days, playing Stansfield as a subdued Samuel Gerard from The Fugitive/U.S. Marshalls. It’s not to say they’re not enjoyable to watch, but there’s almost an underlying boredom to their performances which, combined with the “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” conceit, engenders a “going-through-the-motions” feeling that makes you realize that not only have you seen this before (especially given the reference to another Scorsese film reference that is practically televised to the audience before it is even mentioned***), you’ve seen it done better.
Surprisingly, it’s young actors Agron and D’Leo who are the film’s standouts. Both start out as stock “too cool for school” teenagers but grow in an extremely visceral way as the story progress so that by its conclusion, they are at a more mature place in their development. The come to realize that the world, and the circumstances by which they come to live in it, are no joke. The other supporting performers are so “one note rote”, they barely merit a mention. The best that can be said about them is that they adequately service the story.
Besson seems more interested in the Manzoni/Blake’s “fish out of water” story, as he devotes two-thirds of the film’s running time to explore it. Thus, the subplot regarding the bounty on their collective heads and the hit man determined to claim it (an effectively creepy Jon Freda) is almost tacked on and hurriedly resolved in the climax. However, Besson’s direction ratchets the suspense in the film’s climatic moments to actual edge-of-seat proportions. This is where Agron and D’Leo shine in their respective roles, running a gamut of conflicting emotions with a surprising amount of self-possession. The score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine is quirky but colorful, adding to the film’s general atmosphere. However, given the film’s uneven tone, it comes across as disjointed as well.
By no means is The Family a bad film. It has some enjoyable moments and some good character interaction. However, tonal shifts, the ennui of the leads, and the overall execution prevent it from being as enjoyable as one would hope given the talent involved both in front of and behind the camera. I never thought I’d see a Luc Besson film that would merit a “wait for cable” designation.
I guess there’s a first time for everything.
*** The script is based on a short story called “Malavita”, which was also called “Badfellas”.
Paul Anthony Llossas