Sunday, September 15, 2013

From Brooklyn To Normandy, Still Married To The Mob

Michelle Pfeiffer as Maggie and Robert De Niro as Giovanni in Luc Besson's comedy-drama "The Family".  Relativity Media


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Sunday, September 15, 2013

Luc Besson directs and co-writes "The Family", a playful comic drama with a "War Of The Roses" blunt edge.  Based on Tonino Benacquista's novel Malavita ("Badfellas"), "The Family" is a funny take-off on the mob and mob movies.  Robert De Niro is Giovanni "Gio" Manzoni, a Brooklyn mobster turned writer, in exile with his family under FBI witness protection in Normandy, France, where much of "The Family" was filmed on location.  From behind bars Gio's Brooklyn mob boss Don Luchesi (Stan Carp) plots to kill Gio for testifying against him. 

Every 90 days or so the Manzonis have to relocate, as the past catches up with them in quick order.  "What's wrong with this family?", Gio asks at one point.  The answer is, a lot.  Instead of quietly hiding out in France, one of the most pacifist nations you can think of, they export their crime roots.  The Manzonis wreak havoc in Normandy, making a name for themselves (and for Americans as a stereotype) with violence and other assorted psychotic and anti-social behaviors.  Even the Manzonis' dog, which spends much of his on-camera time in "The Family" giving baleful expressions, turns violent at a moment's notice.

As its proud matriarch Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) upholds the Manzoni name by blowing up a supermarket with little provocation, while fragile daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) teaches some would-be rapists a tennis lesson.  (Belle will later go from amorous to suicidal in about 20 minutes flat.  Sigh.)  Son Warren (John D'Leo) exacts wicked revenge on a bully.  Gio himself takes extreme measures real and imagined.  On rare off-days from such behavior he's preoccupied with the word "fuck" and preventing the water in his faucets from staying brown.  FBI agent Stan (Tommy Lee Jones) has the thankless task of watching the Manzonis' backs and reigning Gio in.  He probably doesn't get paid enough, and Mr. Jones looks weary and indignant, which suits Stan to a "T".

Mr. Besson by contrast enjoys poking fun in this wacky tale of a family knee-deep in dead bodies.  It's no accident "The Family" references one of its executive producer Martin Scorsese's most acclaimed films.  Nor is it coincidence many in the cast have been in "The Sopranos" or similar fare.  In Ms. Pfeiffer's case, it's "Scarface" and "Married To The Mob".  Mr. De Niro has his share of mob or gangster film efforts, the obvious ones ("Mean Streets", "Godfather Part II", "The Untouchables", "Goodfellas") and "Analyze This", a parody on the mob movie genre like "The Family". 

The logic of Mr. Besson's film though, falls under cursory scrutiny: why would a family that kills with such unabashed abandon even need FBI protection?  If 14-year-old Warren Manzoni can pack the kind of ballistic punch that would appall parents in Newtown, Connecticut and elsewhere in America, couldn't he and his clan fend for themselves against a vengeful crime kingpin and his acolytes?  "The Family" distracts mostly from those questions, staying entertaining for longer than it should, thanks to its reveling in darkly comic demeanor and possessing an oddly affectionate core. 

Mr. De Niro plays a neurotic well, much less a murderous one, making Gio, or his FBI alias "Fred" a funny, endearing fellow who wants to write his side of the Brooklyn mob story to clear his troubled conscience.  In doing so Gio doesn't want to make himself look too good, he insists.  (Of course he and the film do just that.)  "The Family" is an ode to Mr. De Niro's previous crime film roles and is appealing enough to be a surprisingly decent film.  The cast overall does well, and Ms. Pfeiffer's comedy chops emerge.  Her Maggie has a running joke about cream in her recipes, which everyone, including her FBI protectors, adore.  Given the off-kilter atmosphere of "The Family" you half expect a body part to appear in one of her edible creations. 

"The Family", which also has the tenor of movies like "Serial Mom" and "Parents", largely eschews on camera violence despite its R rating.  Regardless of the film's discretion with onscreen violence, the Manzonis are utterly homesick for it.  Alas, the tranquil trappings of France have only brought out this whack-a-doodle family's baser tendencies.  You can take the family out of crime but you can't take crime out of this family.  In "The Family" the family that slays together stays together.  Capisce?

Also with: Jimmy Palumbo, Domenick Lombardozzi, Vincent Pastore, Jon Freda, Michael J. Panichelli Jr.

"The Family" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for violence, language and brief sexuality
The film's running time is one hour and 50 minutes. 

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