While it would be nice to say that the oddball Mafioso comedy The Family is a great return to form for French auteur Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element – his last good film he directed back in 1997), it wouldn’t be true. At best, it’s an intriguing misfire, full of style over substance, but the substance should be beefed up and the style cut back considerably.
Former mob shot-caller Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) has been under FBI witness protection for the past several years for snitching on his former family. With his biological family in tow – maternal figure Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), smooth talking son Warren (John D’Leo), and hot-headed sexpot daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) – they head for their latest hideout in Normandy where they’re forced to live among the locals who generally look down upon American swine.
The premise comes rife with zany potential, so it’s sad to see the same sort of tired fish-out-of-water tropes trotted out again here. Besson (who also co-wrote) never raises his core comedic thesis above noting how uppity French people can be just as boorish and dishearteningly ugly as their American gangster counterparts. That would be fine if everything wasn’t done in such broad caricature that the jokes never rate more than mildly chuckle worthy.
Despite some of the best transitions between scenes in a film this year, everything comes across as shambling and episodic before throwing up its hands and going completely off the rails in the ludicrous second half. After the fourth or fifth clever juxtaposition, it’s very clear that The Family wasn’t a film that found its structure in the editing room. It was instead built expressly for the edit without ever putting more than a novel amount of thought into what came between the cuts. It’s well directed, but what is Besson really directing here?
So many plot threads are set up and all are resolved through simple brush offs along the way with no tangible payoffs. Giovanni only narrates the film for the sake of having an inner monologue and give him something to annoy his long suffering handler with (played by a great, but utterly wasted Tommy Lee Jones). Then there’s a whole subplot involving him trying to find out why his plumbing churns out brown water all the time, which is funny, but again adds precious little other than length. There’s a bit about how Warren knows how to profit from playing all the angles at his school – pitting everyone against each other, more or less – but it sputters to a slow death at the midway point. Pfeiffer does precisely nothing outside of getting angry at a grocery store clerk who tells her snootily that French people would never eat peanut butter. She still fares better than poor Agron, who one wishes Besson would have just turned into the badass the movie hints she is instead of a horny, histrionic teen who just wants to bang her math tutor.
That’s not to say that Besson’s film is completely dour and lifeless. A few moments of inspired silliness pop up like a great meta joke playing on De Niro’s penchant for playing mob types, LCD Soundsystem being used at a key moment for two characters to get it on, and the family’s cover being blown in one of the most gleefully ironic and convoluted plot devices I’ve ever seen. But it’s all for naught in the end.
The cast comes ready to play, but Besson doesn’t give them nearly enough toys to mess around with. De Niro seems a good sport and not merely going through the motions like he usually does in his C-list appearances. D’Leo steals every scene he’s in, and despite having an atrociously sexist character, Agron is pleasant enough. Maybe Besson should have stuck to the Arthur and the Invisibles animated features he had been churning out recently or to producing B-grade action films like Taken, The Transporter, and Lockout. Even his most recent live action films made almost expressly for French audiences – The Lady and The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec – were tepid affairs that hinted at someone trying to get their mojo back as a filmmaker through experimentation in different genres. The Family is a decidedly safer effort. They all feel like the work of someone trying to start a car where the engine doesn’t quite want to turn over. Let’s hope the next time he turns the key there isn’t a bomb tied into the ignition.