I’m not sure why so many people hated Luc Besson’s The Family. It’s an entertaining and provocative film and Besson still has a knack for directing high voltage action sequences. Still, 20th Century Fox couldn’t generate one positive quote for the Blu-ray cover. Ninety percent of the film is a black comedy, then all hell breaks loose in the final act and everything turns deadly serious. By the time you reach the movie’s ominous final frames, you’ll look back and question why you laughed and cheered for the criminals and sociopaths who make up the “Blake” family in the first place.
Robert De Niro is Fred, the patriarch of the Blakes. Of course, his name isn’t really Fred Blake; he’s really Giovanni Manzoni and Blake is a new identity for his family and him. Fred (let’s just call him that) is a Mafia boss who testified against his old boss, Luchese (Stan Carp). Now Fred and his family are a part of the FBI Witness Relocation Program and living abroad. Fred’s wife is the equally tough and deadly Maggie (a great Michelle Pfeiffer) and they have two kids: virtuous, tough Belle (Glee’s Dianna Agron) and entrepreneur Warren (John D’Leo). The film throws us in the middle of their latest relocation, latest because Fred has a tough time giving up the old ways, especially when it comes to respecting his wife and kids.
The Blakes arrive in a sleepy town in Normandy, France and try their best to remain incognito under the guise of the family of an American writer (their newest cover). Although instructed never to leave the house, Fred can’t help to get caught up in the town’s dirty water problems and sneak away to deal with city officials. Meanwhile, Maggie can’t get the respect of her neighbors, who view her as an entitled American, Belle can’t keep the hands of boys off of her, and Warren can’t keep out of trouble at school.
Back in the States, the old gang in Jersey is on the hunt for Fred and getting closer. Tommy Lee Jones has a supporting role – don’t be mislead by the PR, Jones has a small part – as the Fed in charge of keeping the Blakes alive, no matter what the collateral damage. As Agent Stanfield, he shows up with his famous scowl to trade lines with De Niro whenever Fred gets out of line.
The Family stays true to its name, as the story is equal poarts about the four of them and how they adjust to their latest relocation. Taking his new occupation seriously, Fred begins writing a tell-all memoir. Maggie strikes up a friendship with the two Feds assigned to monitor the family, providing them with authentic Italian cuisine. Belle falls in love with one of her teachers and Warren proves to be adept at the family business, extorting every kid on his school and taking over the local teenage drug trade.
Besson does an excellent job of making us fall in love with these characters, so much so that their despicable acts come off as humorous, in a Goodfellas kind of way. It helps that he has two old pros playing his leads. While De Niro and Pfeiffer don’t add anything new to these types of characters that they’ve played before, they do bring their “A” games to the movie. Toward the end, when Maggie believes her children may be dead, the anguish and terror in Pfeiffer’s reaction is chilling. Furthermore, the actress isn’t afraid to deglamorize herself for the sake of the role.
As for De Niro, you never know what you’re going to get with him these days. Sometimes he’s perfect (Silver Linings Playbook) and others he’s sleepwalking (Righteous Kill). I’ve read that he really wanted to work with Besson, an old friend. It seems that this relationship made him deliver the goods.
It’d be easy to dismiss The Family as just another mobster movie, but this one does make you think. What does it say about us, the audience, that we laugh and cheer with the violent criminals? What does it say about our society that these same criminals are allowed to start over time and again for the sake of law and order, while innocent people are caught in the crossfire? Maybe I’m looking too much into what was supposed to be popular entertainment. In that case, I found The Family to be an enjoyable and a well-made movie.