Critic's Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Directed by Luc Besson. Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, and John D'Leo. Opens Fri., Sept. 13 at area theaters.
The Manzonis don’t have anger management issues. That's because they’re entirely comfortable with a few tennis racket smashes to the face or repeated blows to the legs to solve their immediate problems. In The Family, director Luc Besson dispenses with trying to redeem these flawed but appealing characters with the kind of mawkishness we're used to seeing in Hollywood-bred entertainment.
Besson’s notable efforts include La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Fifth Element. Here, the first English-language film he's directed in over 10 years, nearly all of the action is confined to Normandy, France, a town so modest (despite its historical import) the nearest attraction of note is said to be in a neighboring village. The Family is also something of a surprise as it contains none of the lurid, garish touches of the films that bear Besson's executive producer imprint (Kiss of the Dragon, Colombiana).
Instead, he's content to spend time with the Manzonis, whose patriarch, Giovanni (Robert De Niro), is in the witness protection program for testifying against a New York mob boss. The Manzoni clan are a pain for the FBI, as there are few problems they don’t answer with brutally efficient violence. Some of the most enjoyable scenes are those between De Niro and a typically deadpan Tommy Lee Jones (playing their government caretaker). Wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) chastises their teenagers or Giovanni for using the word “fuck” but thinks nothing of blowing up the stock room of a tiny grocery store for a little payback. And woe to the plumber who tries to get over on Giovanni or the pimply teen taking an unsolicited chance with daughter Belle. Besson stages these as quick outbursts, punctuating their comedic effect without wallowing in the easy irony of a family that thinks nothing of breaking somebody’s nose for an affront — be it a social gaffe, a lie or invasion of personal space. The Manzonis always have their reasons — and those reasons aren't bad. Not justifiable, but certainly not beyond winning empathy for these ingratiating folks.
It's refreshing that Besson is just as interested in quirky dynamics as he is in the bloody violence. He frames this slight story (based on the novel Malavita) as a low-key comedy, but also as a winking indulgence in the allure of the mob drama. Giovanni attends a film screening that, with its ticklish reference to one of De Niro’s career highlights, makes this meta context clear.
The Family is sprinkled with references to previous De Niro gangster roles, without feeling derivative or beholden to any of them. It’s all a little silly and breezy, but charming as well. Besson's created a leisurely paced work whose small charms — like its dialogue and sincerity of tone and lovely cinematography — make for a pleasant diversion.