There was probably a better-than-average dark comedy locked up in “The Family.” But Luc Besson is not the fellow to unlock it. The Frenchman has based his international movie career on slick action, noise and bombast, not on comedy.
So this comic tale of a Mafia family headed by Robert De Niro — of course, it would be headed by De Niro! — relocated to a sleepy French village under the Witness Protection Program quickly falls apart under the weight of clumsy gags and bizarre shifts in tone between cruel violence and strained comedy.
Too bad because included in the cast are Tommy Lee Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer, each paired with De Niro for the first time. It might have been a fun gathering rather than a bummer exercise in real-life animation.
The problem is no one gave much thought to what kind of gangsters would inhabit this movie. Certainly not Besson or co-scenarist Michael Caleo (and as a staff writer on “The Sopranos” you’d think he at least might try).
Are they movie mobsters — you know, the kinds that populate the movies of Martin Scorsese, who takes an exec producing credit — or realistic ones?
The crime family here, not to mention the various hit men and Mafia dons at the movie’s edges, is neither. These characters are ineptly conceived, the butt of many of gags about a cranky family that refuses to shed its old habits in the Old World. Then as the movie winds to a close, they get sentimentalized despite many vicious bad habits.
New to a small Normandy village and mad that a supermarket owner and his customers are gossiping about her, why shouldn’t Maggie (Pfeiffer) just bomb the place? The surprise here is that she never speaks French in the entire movie so how does she know what they’re saying about her?
And why shouldn’t “Fred,” as Giovanni (De Niro) is now called, beat and mangle a plumber into a body cast just because his pipes disgorge brown water? The fact that the plumber was right, that the problem stemmed from outside the house, only adds to the merriment.
Before too long, you think you’ve misunderstood and these characters are in a Witless Protection Program.
Movie mobsters would plot, connive, bribe and threaten to get what they want. Real mobsters would probably just lie low and not create international incidents to call attention to this odd American family hiding out in Normandy.
But Besson’s mobster family, and this includes son Warren (John D’Leo) and daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), never pass up an opportunity to beat the crap out of a villager. It’s not only a lame gag but it’s a lame gag that gets repeated throughout the entire movie.
Then when hit men come for the family, do they sneak stealthily into town and wait for an opportunity to off the snitch? No, they come in force and armed so as to constitute a second Normandy invasion by the Yanks.
What on earth is funny about American gangsters shooting every French citizen they see? How is an audience supposed to react to this?
This ham-fisted writing and direction run through the entire movie but at least it obscures puzzling plot points in the script based on Tonino Benacquista’s novel, “Malavita.”
Why, for instance, would a mob family of four need three minders baby-sitting them in a tiny village? Two guys (Jimmy Palumbo and Domenick Lombardozzi) are stationed permanently across the street with no other duties while a third agent (Jones) drops by constantly.
D’Leo’s wannabe wisemguy does enough shady deals and beatings at the local lycée to be mildly amusing but Agron’s older daughter is hard to get a fix on. She can thrash schoolmates to a pulp yet gets all weepy suicidal over a man who refuses to be the “love of my life.”
As so it goes. Nothing has been thought through so the gags make sense. The family has less to do with gangsters than simply Ugly Americans abroad without a clue how locals act or think. This despite the fact that everyone in the village speaks perfect English.
Opens: September 13, 2013 (Relativity Media)
Production company: EuropaCorp
Cast: Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Jimmy Palumbo, Domenick Lombardozzi
Director: Luc Besson
Screenwriters: Luc Besson, Michael Caleo
Based on the novel by: Tonino Benacquista
Producers: Virginie Besson-Silla, Ryan Kavanaugh
Executive producers: Martin Scorsese, Tucker Tooley
Director of photography: Thierry Arbogast
Production designer: Hugues Tissandier
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine
Costume designer: Olivier Beriot
Editor: Julien Rey
R rating, 111 minutes