Sept. 13--Fred Blake breaks a dozen bones of a dishonest plumber with a baseball bat and hammer. His wife, Maggie, blows up a small grocery store because of a rude manager. Their daughter, Belle, smashes a high school classmate's head bloody with a tennis racket when he gets too fresh with her. And teenage son Warren arranges for a school bully to "get his" via a beating from other students.
These are the heroes of The Family, a dark comedy-drama about a former New York mob family now living in France as part of the federal witness relocation program. They are also a fundamental problem of the film.
In director Luc Besson's (The Fifth Element, The Professional) big-screen adaptation of Tonino Benacquista's French novel Malavita (known by its English title Badfellas), these are protagonists to root against. Particularly Fred (Robert De Niro), aka Giovanni Manzoni, a onetime mob boss who turned state's evidence against his crime family and associates but can't seem to let go of the violence of his old job. As Giovanni, he was a man of mafia muscle and neighborhood respect accustomed to his way ... or else. Yet, even removed from his past by a half-dozen years, thousands of miles, and several new identities, Fred still relishes the "or else."
In quiet Normandy, where he and his family have been relocated and he masquerades as a writer working on a book about the Allied invasion, he finds it easier to resolve any difficulties with locals through sound beatings or worse. And when he's not meting out mob justice to those who irritate him, he's fantasizing about barbecuing the face of a pompous neighbor on a hot grill or smashing the fingers of the town's inattentive mayor in a desk drawer.
Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) isn't much better. A local priest is so horrified by her confessions of sin, he rebukes her for being in league with the devil and bans her from his church. And their teenage children, Belle (Dianna Agron, Quinn Fabray on TV's Glee) and Warren (John D'Leo, Wanderlust and The Wrestler), are already emulating the same violence-as-cure-all behavior. Belle is the most sympathetic of the lot, as a wise-beyond-her-years virgin who falls hard for a math instructor at her school. Like every French character in the film, he speaks fluent English. Warren is written as a criminal Ferris Bueller, a scheming high schooler of infinite powers of persuasion proudly following in the mob tradition of his father.
The film assures us that everyone who falls prey to the family's brutality is a jerk or a liar, corrupt or unsavory, and therefore their gruesome fate is merited. But does a husband-father who conned Fred into buying frozen lobsters sold as fresh really deserve to get whacked and buried in a hole in the ground? And is his murderous punishment really that funny? It's not -- and most of the time neither is The Family, try as it might to find humor in bludgeoning.
The Blakes are placed in imminent danger because many of Fred's former mob associates are desperate to kill him in retaliation for ratting them out to the Feds.
Trying to keep the family safe and out of trouble is the no-nonsense federal agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones, who plays curmudgeon better than anyone), who must be accumulating vast amounts of the frequent-flyer miles as he pops in and out of Normandy with regularity. His two subordinates, Di Cicco (Jimmy Palumbo) and Caputo (Domenick Lombardozzi), are left to keep a watchful eye on the Blakes from a house across the street. Stansfield is worried about the mob locating those in his protective custody, so he's furious to discover that Fred is writing his tell-all memoirs about his former crime life.
Besson has never produced a pure comedy and his streak remains intact with The Family. The film functions best as a bloody-violent mob drama, while its comic bits are uneven and often undeveloped, working best as quirky observational humor worthy of a smirk and the occasional laugh-out-loud moment.
But audiences aren't paying to see a Besson film or a mob movie.
What sells The Family is its cast; in particular, De Niro and Pfeiffer, who are charming and believable as a couple fluent in each other's faults but still unabashedly in love. And while the two have performed separately in funnier gangster movies -- he as a mob boss who seeks psychiatric help in 1999's Analyze This, she as a mob boss widow in 1988's Married to the Mob -- The Family represents the first time they've appeared together in any film. The actors have such a fluid, natural chemistry on screen, it's regrettable that they haven't tapped into that before now. Or, in this instance, found a better film.
Contact Kirk Baird at or 419-724-6734.
(c)2013 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)
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