Movie review: You better laugh at 'The Family' -- or else

For the News-DemocratSeptember 12, 2013 

What It's About

The body count is high and the laughs are prompted by graphic violence plus a running expletive gag in "The Family." Writer-director Luc Besson ("La Femme Nikita") wants desperately to be on "The Sopranos" level here but winds up resembling a gangster rendition of "The Simpsons" instead.

Robert DeNiro plays a Brooklyn mobster who ratted out other Mafioso, and now is in the witness protection program with his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and two teenage kids Warren (John D'Leo) and Belle (Diana Agron of "Glee"). They are a close-knit family, but as revealed during their stay in the village of Normandy, have trigger tempers and yield excessive force when disrespected or enraged.

The Blakes are hunted by mob enforcers straight out of every James Cagney gangster movie, and the hits are plentiful throughout the movie. The heat is on, and how can the family get out of this latest jam?

Performers

As the old-school Cosa Nostra honcho who can't change his old habits, DeNiro excels -- he doesn't phone this performance in, enjoying this lightweight role, and having some laughs at the expense of his image. He displays wonderful comic timing with the repeated delivery of a cuss word.

Michelle Pfeiffer, still beautiful, shows more warmth and less icy exterior as the matriarch, but her Brooklyn accent starts out strong, then fades as the film moves forward.

John D'Leo shines as the 14-year-old son who is a chip off the old block. When he is bullied at school, his cunning maneuvers lead to becoming the high school's crown prince of mayhem and payback is sweet. The kid is a natural -- watch out Joe Pesci!

Surprise is Diana Agron's calling card when Barbie-doll Belle unveils a nasty mean streak, but it comes in handy when defending her honor and her family's, not to mention teaching boys about girls.

Tommy Lee Jones is how you expect he'd be as a grumpy FBI guy trying to keep the Manzoni family out of trouble, but frustrated by their inability to behave nicely.

The characters are all written in broad strokes -- there is little subtlety or nuance to see.

What Works

The film provides plenty of eye candy with scenic shots of France and Besson's captivating fluid visual style. (He's a pro when it comes to action movies, having directed "The Professional" and written "The Transporter.")

Yet the story faces a difficult time straddling the line between funny moments and violent outbursts, enough where it's disconcerting. There is a gruesome attack on a plumber that didn't need to be featured.

What Doesn't Work

You know what you are getting with a mob movie. There will be blood. There will be brutality. But there are enough unfortunate innocent victims where characters' demises are met with gasps and shock. They try to juxtapose a typical American family with French and Mafia stereotypes, and that's just a bizarre mix.

The French are snooty to foreigners. Oh really? Suffice to say that our international relationships aren't going to gain any ground with the caricatures of all these characters.

2 1/2 stars out of 4

Director: Luc Besson

Starring: Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D'Leo, Dominic Chianese, Vincent Pastore.

Rated: R for violence, language and brief sexuality

Length: 1:48

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