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In Theaters: THE FAMILY (2013)

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THE FAMILY
(France/US - 2013)

Directed by Luc Besson.  Written by Luc Besson and Michael Caleo.  Cast: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D'Leo, Vincent Pastore, Domenick Lombardozzi, Jimmy Palumbo, Jon Freda, Stan Carp.  (R, 112 mins)

Perhaps more than any other working actor, Robert De Niro seems to get a lot of shit about his career choices.  While he's turned in some lazy performances in some some truly abysmal films (LITTLE FOCKERS, RED LIGHTS, FREELANCERS, and THE BIG WEDDING all come to mind), he can still bring that unique De Niro magic to a performance when he genuinely cares.  He did some very good work in 2010's STONE, 2011's underrated KILLER ELITE and 2012's barely-seen BEING FLYNN, and his Oscar-nominated turn in last year's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK was his best performance in years.  He just turned 70 and is working more than ever.  By the end of 2013, De Niro will have had seven movies released this year alone.  While some of his contemporaries, like Jack Nicholson (offscreen since 2010), Warren Beatty (offscreen since 2001), and Al Pacino (five credits since 2010) are slowing down, it doesn't seem as if De Niro is saying no to anything.  He could stand to be a little more choosy with his projects--there's no excuse for him taking third billing in a 50 Cent movie--but I don't think De Niro's career is in the dire condition his critics claim.  Lots of good actors coast through mediocre movies for easy paychecks (I'm looking at you, Nic Cage).  It just hurts a little more to see a figure as towering and iconic as De Niro, arguably the world's greatest living actor, slumming in stuff that's clearly beneath him and making no effort to hide his complete disinterest.  But you can't say De Niro has lost it when you see him in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.  De Niro's still got it--he just doesn't bring it with him to every movie set.


THE FAMILY finds De Niro not exactly bringing his A-game, but he's not phoning it in, either.  No, the coasting on this one is on behalf of the great French filmmaker Luc Besson, who's spent recent years writing and producing films like the TRANSPORTER franchise, DISTRICT B13, TAKEN, FROM PARIS WITH LOVE, COLOMBIANA, and LOCKOUT for various protégés (Louis Leterrier, Pierre Morel, Olivier Megaton).  During this same period, Besson has directed a few animated films and some little-seen French arthouse pieces, but THE FAMILY is his first directorial effort to get a wide US release since 1999's THE MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC.  THE FAMILY is ostensibly a Mafia comedy, and comedy isn't exactly Besson's specialty.  De Niro is New York mobster Giovanni Manzoni, who ratted on his associates and is now in the federal witness protection program, living in France as "Fred Blake," with his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), and son Warren (John D'Leo).  The Manzoni's mob habits are hard to break, and their bad tempers and quick resorting to violence usually results in them frequently having to move to another location under the watchful eye of their exasperated FBI handler Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).  Giovanni's latest blunder--killing a local baker who disrespected him--forces Stansfield to move them to a small town in Normandy to a new home with a new set of names.


Meanwhile, back home, incarcerated capo Don Luchese (Stan Carp) has dispatched hitman Rocco (Jon Freda) to find the family, who's having a hard time blending into their surroundings.  THE FAMILY tries to be a culture clash comedy, but it doesn't really work since they've been living in various parts of France for several years and should already be accustomed to the ways of that world.  Instead, we get sidetracked with Belle's crush on her math tutor, Warren's various schemes and power plays at school, and "Fred" working through bureaucratic red tape to get the plumbing in their new house fixed.  Really?  You've got a gangster icon like De Niro spoofing his image (which he already did in ANALYZE THIS and ANALYZE THAT) and you're wasting an inordinate amount of screen time having him address the situation with the aging pipes in his house?  The thing is, the four principal actors are fine and have some nice chemistry as a family (Pfeiffer, another great actor who doesn't work as often as she should, is very good), but there's just nothing noteworthy or even very funny about the script.  It's almost like writers Besson and Michael Caleo scribbled "De Niro, gangster, witness protection" on some scrap paper and figured everything would just fall into place. 

There is some humor in the discussion of the versatility of the word "fuck," and one legitimately clever sequence when Fred, who's introduced himself to his neighbors as an American writer, is asked by a local arts & culture group to do a Q&A after a screening of the Frank Sinatra film SOME CAME RUNNING, only to find that they were accidentally sent a print of GOODFELLAS instead.  Stansfield accompanies Fred to the event, and the pained look on Jones' face (I'd say he's spoofing his own image as a humorless sourpuss, but that's giving the film too much credit) is priceless as he tells De Niro "We're not gonna sit here and watch your home movies," to which De Niro replies "It's a classic!  Admit it, it's your favorite secret jerkoff movie!"  THE FAMILY comes alive most when Besson drops all attempts at comedy and things get grimly serious when Rocco and his goons show up and start mowing down the town searching for the family.  It's a tightly-edited, suspenseful set piece that recalls the climactic hotel showdown in Besson's THE PROFESSIONAL (Jones' Stansfield was also the name of Gary Oldman's corrupt DEA agent in that film), but it doesn't belong in this movie.  That, coupled with the abrupt shrug of an ending shows that Besson just doesn't seem all that interested in what he's doing here, which is a shame.  THE FAMILY isn't so much a bad movie as it's just a missed opportunity.  Between the casting of De Niro and Pfeiffer (who's got SCARFACE and MARRIED TO THE MOB to her credit) and Besson's love of classic American gangster films, this could've been a smart, inventive deconstruction of the mob movie genre, but instead, we get a squandered cast headed by De Niro trying to get his shitty plumbing fixed.


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