Review: 'The Family'

Comparable to the grandiloquent genre-spinning of “The Fifth Element” and “La Femme Nikita,” Luc Besson's “The Family” is a love letter to Scorsese and the mafia picture, constructed with all the grace of Mr. Bean. This is Besson's way; perhaps it's cultural or language divide, but the French director's focus is squarely on images and action that translates for any audience. In the case of “The Family,” Besson's visual obsessions are mobsters bashing fingers with hammers and Robert De Niro squinting, preparing to bash said fingers. It's a sadistic comedy, both in bloodshed and groan-worthy gags.

De Niro is Giovanni Manzoni, a crime boss from New Yawk living under government protection with his clan in Normandy, France. He's a snitch — one that continues to lose his temper and beat unsuspecting, irksome common folk to bloody pulp — but a value to the FBI and lead agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones). The Manzoni family, or rather, The Blake family, arrives to Normandy in a state of malaise, having been relocated for the umpteenth time. They can't stay put because mafia blood runs through the veins, instilling them with a drive for violence and a track record of bad behavior. On day one, Giovanni buries the dead body of a seafood salesman who pissed him off, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) blows up a convenience store that doesn't sell peanut butter, their son Warren (John D'Leo) plots an intricate hit on a local bully, and daughter Maggie (Dianna Agron) bashes an ogling classmate's face in with a tennis racket. “Feel bad for these people!” Besson says with his aggressive, supposedly sympathetic setup.

“The Family” has more in common with American sitcoms than the Scorsese's gangster pictures. If anyone watched Netflix's “Lillyhammer,” we'd be hearing about an infringement lawsuit. The action is non-exist: Can Giovanni and his family settle in to the French countryside without giving away their identities? No, they didn't before and they won't again. But dammit, Tommy Lee Jones will make them try. Like the mob version of “Bewitched,” the Manzonis ward off nosy neighbors and intrusive overseers. The FBI watches them from afar to ensure they stay on their best behavior. And they mostly do, turning “The Family” a slog.

The ensemble's willingness to play ball with Besson's goofy concept goes a long way. In terms his spectrum of comedic performances, De Niro continues his laid back “Silver Linings Playbook” mode, rather than devolving into “Analyze That” parody. Even when he's breaking the legs of the town's local plumber (“He was trying to rip me off!”), the Hollywood legend is warm and forgiving. Which doesn't quite play — Giovanni has committed horrifying crimes, both in his past and in the present. Yet he's basically Steven Keaton from “Family Ties.” Luckily, De Niro hits the right notes, lands the jokes, and comes out unscathed.

So does his family. Agron is least recognized of the bunch, completely underserved by Besson's script. He's aching to turn the actress into one of the ass-kicking heroines that have filled his filmography, but without the vehicle to do it, she's just a teen with seductive qualities and a disturbing penchant for harming others. D'Leo's wheeling and dealing kid mobster suffers the same problem, being so dangerous, so smooth, so alive in bland script, that his work cries for his own movie. Pfiffer's theatrical sensibilities align with Besson's tone but her larger-than-life Brooklyn matriarch land with a thud. The accent is a distraction, coasting like a hydroplaning mac truck.

Working against the enjoyable aspects of “The Family” is Besson's propensity for the ludicrous. The major drive of action halfway through the movie that tips the rest of the mob off to Giovanni's whereabouts is the most disgraceful act of deus ex machina ever committed to film. It's a device from the Jean-Pierre Jeunet school of whimsy that has no place in this film. Amazingly, Besson tops the moment with a dash of meta humor. The director can't help but take advantage of De Niro's presence with a scene at Normandy's local Film Society. You do the math.

Hijinks are “The Family's” greatest crime, a formulaic baseball bat to the kneecaps the cast's comedic performances. There's a disconnect that goes unaddressed; Besson wants us to love the Manzonis and their kooky lifestyle, while also laughing at the fact that they've built a life founded on destroying others. Forgivable with the right approach, but “The Family” is tonally off-balance. In Giovanni's life, he has one word to describe things that are good, things that are bad, things that hurt, things that glimmer with a hint of sweetness (it's the power of the Italian gruff, apparently). I found myself using the same word after watching Besson's film: F**k.

SCORE: 5.1 / 10