There used to be a time, long before I was even born, where a Robert DeNiro movie was an event. He made a picture only once every year-or sometimes two- and filled that gap with anticipation and the belief that fewer projects meant the production of high quality films. Right now he has six movies slotted in his 2013 and over the past few years has credits in flimsy flicks like New Year’s Eve, Being Flynn, and The Big Wedding. DeNiro saturation is reaching its highest marks, and with few outliers (Silver Linings Playbook) the quality of his films has been inversely proportional.
So that’s possibly one reason why director Luc Besson thought his latest feature The Family should bring DeNiro back to his bread and butter, letting him portray another former mobster. His name this time is Giovanni and he and his Soprano-like family are herded into Normandy under the witness protection program after Giovanni helped turn in some former associates to authorities back in New York. Now under the watch of special agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), the brooding and meddling Long Island family must cozy up to their pastoral French village. Like that will ever happen.
Giovanni, now under the name Fred Blake, brings along his thick-accented wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and two kids, Belle (Diana Agron of Glee fame) and Warren (John D’Leo), unenthused about immersing themselves into their polite surroundings. Their bruised and battered conditioning quickly emerges. Maggie goes grocery shopping and doesn’t like her cashier so she lights a bomb and blows fruits and vegetables to smithereens. Belle is courted by some pervy French boys, whose ultimately harmless seduction earns one a tennis racquet to the head. Warren meanwhile begins scheming his way through his new school’s hallways, making allegiances and scamming foes of money. This is not a subtle family.
Fred is also keen to obsessive acts of violence, some involving a torturous scene with an unfortunate plumber. Apparently it’s not Stansfield’s job to reprimand any crime this family commits; he, along with a two-man surveillance team, must keep them safe. But Stansfield must also find something for Fred to occupy his time in order to keep the community from questioning his presence. He suggests writing, which quickly spawns Fred’s imaginative, in some ways cathartic, memoirs and a few creative careers to brag to inquiring neighbors. They throw a block party to seem “inviting” and Fred recounts a New York barbecue through flashback with his mobster friends in the same vain that he envisions slamming a frustrating French neighbor’s face into his grill.
Besson, most popular with foreign action films like Transporter and most recently Taken 2, never finds any sort of tonal balance to create his utopic black comedy genre. After Belle bludgeons her way with the racquet, she then falls into a preposterous, dreamy romance with a math teacher. This family is not ironic they are sociopathic. Any glimpses of humor in their street tough personas lose flavor in the unexpected brutality that quickly follows and eventually storms its way into the third act when Normandy becomes a Hollywood shoot ‘em up.
The level of ludicrousness is unmatched in the way mob members find the Blake’s whereabouts in France (it involves Warren’s school newspaper, a bottle of wine, and a lot of destiny). Something about Pfeiffer and DeNiro in these roles seems perfectly right, but somehow Besson manages to make it all wrong. After blabbing about his expertise in cinema to a neighbor, Fred haphazardly signs on to lecture at the town’s movie discussion of, guess what, Goodfellas, all to Stansfield’s frustration. I’m not sure where the meta-levels are, or why there’s not any talk of resemblance after the screening. The Family is based off Tonino Benacquista’s novel Badfellas. That was the original title of the film and it may have been more apt.
Of course screening a DeNiro film from his heyday was probably a good choice for the French townspeople. Besson constructs fine pieces of action, but thinks he can add satire at the same time. That belief strangles his actors, and puts another inversely proportionate dot on the DeNiro chart.