With Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Tommy Lee Jones. Written by Luc Besson and Michael Caleo. Directed by Luc Besson. Rated R for violence, language and brief sexuality. 110 minutes.
THE FAMILY won’t be nominated for any Oscars and it’s not going to make many Ten Best lists, but it deserves some special recognition. Luc Besson has done the seemingly impossible. He’s resuscitated the corpse of Robert De Niro’s career. This violent action comedy is the most entertaining thing he’s done since “Analyze This” (1999), another gangster comedy. It would serve them right if the people who praised his hammy turn in the overrated “Silver Linings Playbook” went into this expecting more of the same. Will they be surprised.
De Niro is Giovanni Manzoni, one-time Mafia boss turned informer. Now he and his blood family are in the Witness Protection program… with a $20 million price on his head. Indeed, and for reasons not clear, the Justice Department has the family hiding in France. (Perhaps because that’s where the director got the bulk of his financing?) At the film’s start, Giovanni, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), his daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D’Leo) arrive in a small town in Normandy. Now they are the “Blakes,” and their handler (Tommy Lee Jones) wants them to lay low. As we soon learn, the Manzonis/Blakes have a tendency to use violence to straighten out their problems–at school, at the grocery, with the plumber–necessitating yet another relocation.
As “Fred Blake,” Giovanni knows just what to do to occupy his time. He’s going to start writing his memoirs. In some ways Giovanni is a summing up of all of De Niro’s gangster roles in the same way that “The Shootist” served that purpose for John Wayne’s western, and “Unforgiven” for Clint Eastwood’s. When he starts writing about his “good points,” we see just how skewed his viewpoint is, and why he thinks baseball bats and explosives are sensible solutions to problems.
Meanwhile, his family tries to fit in but can’t help but tap into the family philosophy. Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer channeling her character from 1988’s “Married To The Mob”) goes to a nearby church to pray for help for her family, but learns that there are some things even the confession box can’t make go away. The two teenagers have a rough time fitting in but soon make it clear that one doesn’t cross the Americans. Giovanni’s cover story is that he is a writer, leading to the movie’s highlight where he’s asked to take part in a discussion on a classic American film. It’s a scene that earns an immediate place in any future clip reel of De Niro’s career.
The mixture of violence and comedy will be disconcerting to viewers not familiar with Luc Besson’s other films (which includes “La Femme Nikita” and “Léon: The Professional”), but it’s a world in which DeNiro is entirely at home. His comic timing has rarely been well-utilized (as in the abysmal “Meet The Fockers” movies) nor has his roll call of mobster roles been handled so cleverly. It’s all building to a bloody climax which will have a high body count and numerous threats and reverses, but it works because for the first time in a very long time we’re invested in De Niro’s character. The rest of the cast is solid (and it’s nice to see “The Sopranos” veteran Vincent Pastore pop up in a supporting role), but this is De Niro’s show and it wouldn’t have worked with anyone else in the role. Well, maybe Al Pacino.
“The Family” isn’t a classic, but it’s a solid gangster film by a filmmaker who knows how to upend the conventions of the genre and how to get the most of his star and the body of work he has behind him. It remains to be seen whether this is a blip in De Niro’s otherwise forgettable late career work, or whether the actor whose every new film was once an event is ready to be engaged again.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.