Sad fact: Most younger action movie fans most likely know the name Luc Besson not because of "Léon: The Professional" or "The Fifth Element." For them, he’s that guy whose name keeps showing up in ads for slicked-up Euro-centric thrillers like the "Taken" series, "Colombiana" and "Lockout" (aka "Space Jail"). And based on those disposable films, it’s hard to see what the big deal is unless you’re Liam Neeson’s agent.
For over a decade, Besson’s been out of the spotlight, putting together indie projects ("Angel-A"), prestige biopics ("The Lady") and animated kids movies (the "Arthur and the Invisibles" series) that rarely bothered to make the trip across the Atlantic to America. But now, Besson has popped back into the director’s chair in the hopes of showing his disciples – one of whom has the surname Megaton and the violently caffeinated style to match – how it’s done.
Or at least that’s how the story of "The Family" should’ve gone. Instead, Besson’s dark mob comedy plays like a punch to the face. A well-acted and well-shot punch to the face, but I still walked out rubbing my head in pain and confusion.
Robert De Niro, pleasantly still in showing up mode, plays Giovanni Manzoni, a former Brooklyn mobster who ratted on the local don and ended up dragging himself and his whole family into the witness protection program. After their last home gets compromised, the Manzoni clan – under the guise of the Blake family – heads off to the quaint little French town of Normandy. The granite-faced Tommy Lee Jones plays their frustrated FBI keeper.
Gio keeps himself busy writing his memoirs, finally opening up about the good and the bad of a mobster’s life. He also investigates why his new home’s water is brown, introducing him to dismissive businessmen and corrupt plumbers. And unfortunately for them, breaking old habits isn’t as easy as breaking bones, nor as effective at de-bronzing his water.
The rest of his kin have their own struggles fitting in. While preparing for a big neighborhood party (why would people in witness protection throw a party?), wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer, toying around with a Brooklyn accent) runs into her own band of snobby locals at the grocery store. After some acne-ridden bullies teach him a quick lesson in assimilation in the language of fist, son Warren (John D’Leo) turns his new school into his own criminal organization, with him as its godfather.
Daughter Belle (Dianna Agron, "Glee") blends in the best, finding a dreamy collegiate substitute teacher to flirt with. Of course, not before a band of creeps (also acne-ridden because, listen, we gotta get their sleaziness across somehow) leer a bit too hard, and Belle returns their unwanted foreplay with a forehand with a tennis racket. Dad was using the baseball bat.
As you may have been able to tell, there are very few punch lines in "The Family" that aren’t literal punches. If the film was a person, it would get along really well with Melissa McCarthy’s character in "Identity Thief." It’s a one-note film, and that note is out of tune, too mean to be fun. Even worse, by the time the 57th snooty Frenchman gets a mouthful of burning coals in some revenge fantasy pandering, the script’s viciousness becomes predictable and no less grim.
The tonally uneven script’s other attempts at humor – namely De Niro’s exceptionally pliable use of the f-word – are just as routine. They never go much further than the tried-and-tired joke that mafia people are casually, insatiably violent and very particular about whose food is the best.
The punch lines also always seem to arrive two seconds after the audience sees them coming. Take for instance Gio’s guest debate at the town’s film club, where the scheduled film, "Some Came Running," gets unexpectedly cancelled and replaced with the worst possible option for a mob man trying to keep his mafia past on the lowdown. It’d be a decent joke if it wasn’t so telegraphed (and if it didn’t make me desperately want to watch that movie instead).
Besson’s eye back on the big screen makes the film a bit more digestible. He gives "The Family" a rich visual look, adding natural shadow and texture to the already scenic French town and his actors’ faces. Jones in particular has never looked as cragged.
He seems more in his element in the final act, when the mobsters find out the family’s new location – in very contrived fashion but that’s one of the film’s lesser sins. The mob’s arrival set to the Gorillaz’ eerie-cool "Clint Eastwood," their locust-like descent on the town and the ensuing action features the kind of slickness that made his early work pop (and that his hacky young padawans have tried to recreate). He’s also summons solid performances from his core four actors, as well as from John Freda as the creepy lead hit man on the hunt for Gio.
When it comes to comedy, though, Besson and "The Family" are just as blunt, graceless and bludgeoning as De Niro’s character negotiating with an uncooperative plumber, with equally unpleasant and uneasy results. It’s not funny like a clown. It did not amuse me. It did not make me laugh.
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