Too many bodies, not enough laughs
A superbly cast movie that fails to deliver humor or drama
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, and Diana Agron
Near the beginning of The Family, Giovanni (Robert De Niro) narrates his life story. A former mafia boss who snitched on the mob, Giovanni is forced to become “Fred Blake” and enter witness protection in Normandy with his wife “Maggie” (Michele Pfeiffer), daughter “Belle” (Diana Agron) and son “Warren” (John D’Leo). Though he’s committed untold numbers of murders, tortures, and other devious schemes, he somehow sees himself as a misunderstood “good guy” living with his own moral code. And this absurd delusion seems like an apt metaphor for The Family, a movie convinced that gruesome murders and thin laughs can create a good gangster movie.
The Blakes are relocating again after FBI Agent John Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) was forced to clean up the Blakes’ last few messes. You see, the Blakes can’t seem to shake their old habits of dealing with problems, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be changing soon. Maggie quickly finds herself burning down a grocery store after listening to a disrespectful shopkeeper. Belle beats up a petty thief, and Warren cons his way to the top of the school’s black market. You just can’t disrespect this family.
Giovanni is the only one trying to reform. After a particularly bad run-in with a stereotypical lazy French plumber, Agent Stansfield warns Giovanni he’s on his last straw. Any more funny business, and he’ll be out of the witness protection program. But this new leaf is bound to disappear soon. Warren’s short story about the mafia implausibly finds its way to the jailed mob don in the US, setting off a massive manhunt for Giovanni and his family.
Meanwhile, the Blakes are finally assimilating into their new home, culminating in an evening where Giovanni is the guest of honor at the discussion of an American classic, Goodfellas. Cue the laughs. Later on, the mafia then catches up with the family, forcing them into a dramatic fight with an enormous body count.
Though the actors all give winning performances, their work isn’t enough to overcome the dull script. De Niro and Pfeiffer work together so well that their on-screen marriage has a true warmth. Diana Agron is truly committed to her role as Belle, playing an innocent ingénue and a badass by turns, and Tommy Lee Jones seems to be coasting as a bored FBI agent.
Yet the body count in the film is quite disturbing. The film begins with a gruesome murder of a family at dinner, followed by a dismemberment of a man’s fingers. The brutality inflicted by the Blakes is difficult to stomach because it lacks any consequences, neither being blackly funny nor particularly important to the story. The murders committed by an anonymous hit man are even worse. It’s a real shame because the shock of watching these nonsensical murders ruins the lighter parts of the movie.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about The Family is that it could have been a great thriller or a fantastic comedy, but it tries to do both and fails. Honestly, if you’re looking for a good mob movie starring Robert De Niro, skip The Family, and watch Goodfellas instead.