Luc Besson's "The Family" Well Worth A Visit

It’s been a potholed path that’s seen writer-director Luc Besson to this stage of his career – for every winner like “Léon: The Professional,” there’s been a debacle like “Lockout,” and for every “Taken,” a “Taken 2.” In recent years his directorial duties have largely been limited to animated fare in his native France, while his writing skills have been spent on various tepid actioners (the “Transporter” series among them). Consequently, a mob-centric black comedy with an American cast wasn’t what anyone was expecting from Besson circa 2013, but it’s here and it’s likely to find legions of fans – myself among them.

Robert De Niro headlines “The Family” as Giovanni Manzoni, a former mob boss living in witness protection with his dysfunctional – nay, psychotic – family in tow. A man who was once the king of Brooklyn, Giovanni now finds himself in sleepy Normandy, France, rebranded as the milquetoast Fred Blake, author, and saddled with handlers. Giovanni frequently bristles in the presence of his primary overseer, Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), while trying and failing to shake his most violent impulses.

Giovanni’s wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and two children, Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo), each shoulder their own salacious desires, from the mischievous – Warren takes joy in subverting his new school’s social ladder in the most Costa Nostran way possible – to the vicious – Belle doesn’t suffer aggressive male suitors lightly. As Giovanni faces questions about his future and his new identity, the rest of his family becomes hung up on the past – a past that’s certainly worth an occasional glance over the shoulder.

Like Giovanni, Maggie and the kids constantly revert to their old habits. But while Giovanni sees a kind of twisted beauty in his own murderous instincts and longs to make peace with his legacy – through his new career as an author, of course – Maggie, Belle, and Warren all undergo mini identity crises. The results are both humorous and disturbing, particularly when the film picks up steam in its second and third acts.

But therein lies the rub. “The Family” is something of a slow starter, initially languishing in the ether between drama and comedy. The bent of Besson’s screenplay is immediately problematic – not instantly compelling and not exactly laugh-out-loud hilarious, either – stumbling over mafia clichés right out of the starting gate. The tone is hard to pinpoint, too, oscillating between screwball and dead-on serious. But once the actors are given some surprisingly well-drawn character work, the picture comes together and becomes an intriguing amalgam of mob movie tropes and European stylistic flourishes.

And that, ultimately, is what makes the film so worthwhile. The American-European mash-up nature of the project allows Besson to meld his strengths to that of the great American mob movies, a genre that one particular scene pays tribute to in the funniest way imaginable. It’s a moment that will take viewers entirely out of the film, but it’s worth it on principle alone.

De Niro seems particularly energized in his role, and it’s no surprise. The role is tailor made for him, and his character’s love affair with the word “f—“ is one of the more eloquent representations of the word I’ve seen on film. That his character is so malevolent only makes De Niro’s charm more vital, and that we end up caring about him and his warped family is a testament to the cavalcade of rock-solid performances on display here. Not one of the five leads disappoints, each getting his or her moment to shine.

“The Family” is an unquestionably dark, unbalanced affair – one that could’ve used a sharper comedic voice in the writing stage. But as it builds throughout its running time, it weaves an undeniable web of laughs, violence, and suspense that adult audiences are likely to respond to, especially those partial to mob movies. Viewers hoping for a more streamlined experience will leave disappointed, but for anyone willing to brave some tonal inconsistencies, its rewards are real. Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: September 13, 2013
Studio: Relativity Media
Director: Luc Besson
Screenwriter: Luc Besson
Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Domenick Lombardozzi
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language and brief sexuality)