Saturday, September 14, 2013

Divorcing the Mob: THE FAMILY

Luc Besson’s The Family is an odd mix of tones, a dark comedy played lightly with violence laughed off right up until we’re supposed to take it seriously. The premise is a fish-out-of-water goof about a Brooklyn family with a mobster patriarch (Robert De Niro), his mob wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), teenage daughter (Dianna Agron) and son (John D’Leo) put in witness protection under the watch of an FBI agent (Tommy Lee Jones) who begrudgingly relocates them every time good old dad reverts back to mob rage and blows his cover. Their latest stop is in a small town in Normandy, France. It’s clear right away that the family doesn’t fit in. Their first day involves lying (dad’s), arson (mom’s), and run-ins with bullying classmates (the teens’). How to fit in? The FBI’s official suggestion is to throw a barbeque and invite the neighbors. But of course the real danger is the team of hitmen on their trail, sent to kill the four of them by a mob boss who sits in jail because of their testimony. One hitman guns down a family in the opening scene, emerging gun-first out of a cloud of smoke. We know these guys mean business.

And yet this threat sits on the outskirts of the story as the movie concerns itself mainly with the family’s earnest attempts to stay out of trouble. De Niro can’t shake the need to get things done by threatening those who refuse to execute his demands in a timely and respectful matter. His wife scolds him, thinking he’s killed the plumber, but he assures her that he merely broke some bones and took him to the hospital straightaway. See? Better already. He spends his days at a typewriter, writing a memoir of his mob life that Jones gravely informs him should never be published. It’s not about an audience for this patriarch. It’s therapeutic. Meanwhile, his wife and kids try their hardest to live normal lives in unfamiliar surroundings. His wife goes to church, his daughter gets a crush on a student teacher, and his son schemes his way into his school’s black market. It’s a film about a wacky big city American crime family clashing with a slow-paced European country town and all the stereotypes you’d think that implies.

We’ve all been down this road before, including some of the cast. De Niro, so good in so many crime pictures from Heat, Goodfellas and The Godfather Part II to tongue-in-cheek spins on his gangster persona like Analyze This, here plays out a character that coasts on this recognition. He’s the wise guy who may be retired, but he still powers through every situation with intimidation and four-letter words. Pfeiffer, no stranger to being Married to the Mob, has great composed frustration bubbling beneath the surface, a complicated indignity towards her current situation she sublimates into motherly instincts. She even makes food for the agents watching the house. When she finally agrees (after assurances of confidentiality) to let the local priest hear her confession, she seems to surprise even herself by that decision. Jones can do the wrinkled stoic exasperation required of him in his sleep, which he might be here for all I could tell. The younger actors, as mob teens playing out scheming and beatings in otherwise typical teen scenarios, acquit themselves nicely.

The characters are purely cardboard, but at least the cardboard is painted with vibrant colors. The leads are appealing and, though the supporting cast doesn’t pop as much as I would’ve liked, there are still plenty of funny little asides coloring in the details. The FBI minders debate the respective merits of French and Italian cuisine. Two mobster hitmen solemnly debate killing a dog they find at a crime scene. “Boss said no witnesses,” one reasons. The priest asks Pfeiffer to leave church property saying, “Your confession has haunted me all week.” The best moment is a bit of metatextual silliness that finds De Niro sitting in a French theater watching a Scorsese movie in which De Niro is one of the co-stars. It’s not only a sequence of nested winks, but a plot point that (in conjunction with a montage of strained coincidences) kicks off the climax. In the end, it’s a movie about how the family that kills together stays together, or how you can take the man out of the mob, but not the mob out of the man. Or something like that.

For a long stretch, the film has too many plates spinning, if only because it often forgets a subplot and lets it drop away, but the likability of the ensemble and eccentricity of the off-beat plotting keeps the proceedings amiable enough. It’s all cheeky, violent, and with largely slipshod comical stakes until the climax when the action kicks up in earnest. French director and co-writer Luc Besson has always been a director better with creating concepts than fleshing them out. His visual energy carried sometimes-flimsy material early on in his career (like The Professional or especially The Fifth Element). It makes a certain amount of sense that he’s spent the last decade or so working mainly as a producer and co-writer on an astonishing number of projects. He’s serving as a sort of cultural ambassador and mentor for French action filmmakers (Louis Leterrier, Pierre Morel, Olivier Megaton, Chris Nahon) attempting to import themselves to Hollywood. In The Family, France and Hollywood are explicitly bumping into each other and that’s fun, but isn’t explored to its full potential. Besson gives the film a sense of off-kilter energy, but the plotting ultimately feels familiar and a tad too slight, no matter the nice-enough work of the cast and occasional splashes of darkly funny dialogue and visual playfulness. I can’t quite recommend it, but have some appreciation for what it does well.

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