On paper, The Family has next to nothing going for it. Not only is it branded with a vague and innocuous title, but Robert De Niro boasts a starring role. Without trying to besmirch the legacy of a beloved actor, his recent filmography, with the notable exception of Silver Linings Playbook, has clung almost exclusively to derivative action movie babble or rom-com drivel. Thankfully, The Family is a timid step in the right direction for both him and hit-and-miss director Luc Besson.
The Family, shockingly, is about a family. The ‘Blakes’ (the latest in a long list of aliases) are a household of notorious New York-Italian mobsters laying low in rural France – Dad ‘Fred’ (Robert De Niro) and Mom ‘Maggie’ (Michelle Pfeiffer) desperately seek a fresh start for their two kids ‘Belle’ (Dianna Agron) and ‘Warren’ (John D’Leo), but they’re a bit busy hospitalising plumbers and blowing up the local supermarché to settle into normalcy with anything resembling ease.
The decision to cast De Niro and Pfeiffer in The Family, which chronicles the lives of a mob kingpin, his wife and their kids hiding out in witness protection could easily be seen as sheer unoriginality, or even laziness. De Niro, after all, has played countless goodfellas over the years, while Pfeiffer was herself married to the mob in the film of the same name, not to mention her role in Scarface. One gets a mighty bout of déja vu reading this tired synopsis. But old hat this movie is not. The Family is actually a rather rare beast in that it strikes that elusive balance between comedy and ultra-violence. Such lines are famously hard to tow (recent releases 2 Guns and The Hangover Part III suffered from this), but here Besson manages to keep both plates spinning. De Niro will beat some poor unfortunate to within an inch of his life, before delivering traditional (albeit snappy) familial comedy one-liners at the dinner table. These tonal shifts are jarring at times – that sweet spot of balancing bloodshed and grievous bodily harm with funny dialogue and farcical situations (including a colossal inside joke poking fun at the film’s executive producer, Martin Scorsese) truly is a tricky target.
But Besson has wisely hired a top-notch crew – his recurring cinematographer, Thierry Arbogast cloaks sleepy Normandy with a lush beauty by day but a sinister, chiaroscuro vibe at night. De Niro is backed by a strong supporting cast: Pfeiffer (who, incidentally, could write the book on graceful aging) plays the lethal yet glamorous crime queen with fan-pleasing verve. Glee star Agron violently teaches lessons to horny teen boys and pencil-case thieves, while D’Leo’s character manipulates his schoolmates into doing his bidding. But Tommy Lee Jones, as the family’s legal liaison, is essentially playing himself on holiday in France. He’s on autopilot. While The Family by no means revolutionises the mob comedy, it’s an amusing enough blast of occasionally funny, occasionally gruesome escapism to warrant spending a few euros. It’s certainly a welcome break from the pretension and overwhelming sense of seriousness this season’s ‘important’ (read: Oscarbait) movies have to offer.
The Family is out now.
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