The Family (2013)

Director: Luc Besson

Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo

Relocating must be a bitch. I wouldn’t know… I’ve never had to relocate to a new town, never had to get adjusted to a totally different way of life in a new country. But then I’ve also never been on the wrong side of the law, never had cause to be placed in the Witness Protection Program.  How frustrating it would be to have to change my name, move away from everyone I’ve ever known, and live under 24-hour surveillance on the outside chance that someone figures out where I’ve gone. The idea there is that you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, but the Manzoni family just can’t help themselves.

Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) had to pack up the family and move from Brooklyn, New York to Normandy, France after snitching on some fellow mafiosos and having a $20 million bounty placed on his head. Now, all he wants to do is tell his story in memoir form, even if he’ll be the only one who ever reads it. FBI agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) isn’t too thrilled with Giovanni’s idea, as he believes (and rightly so) that a testimonial will only serve to alert Giovanni’s enemies as to his whereabouts. Giovanni is prideful and impulsive. He’ll break a man’s leg in several places, with two separate blunt instruments, just to prove a point and earn respect. Only then will he drive the injured to a hospital. Others aren’t so lucky, especially those who won’t help him in his quest to have clear tap water.

Truth be told, the only truly level-headed person in the Manzoni clan is the family dog. Giovanni’s wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) doesn’t care for being disrespected either, and a lot of supermarkets in her path tend to explode. Their son, Warren (John D’Leo), might get beat up on the first day of school, but he’s a natural at picking up on the social cliques and their symbiotic relationships to one another. In no time at all, he’s the king of the school’s drug business.

Coming into “The Family,” I expected that the weak link in the cast would be Dianna Agron, due to my prejudice against the TV series “Glee.” Shame on me because Agron, as Manzoni’s daughter Belle, is one of the movie’s strongpoints and the source of its biggest laugh-out-loud moment. If you were unfamiliar with her family background, as would be the case of any of the residents of Normandy, you would take Belle’s deceptively sweet appearance at face value. Especially if you’re a horny teenage boy looking for some action. When a few of the locals try to put the moves on her, Belle shows them just how deeply disturbed she is, beating one of the boys to a bloody pulp with a tennis racket (the business end of which winds up broken clean in half) and then stealing his car.

The adults are less impressive, but that’s because they’re playing all-too familiar roles. Tommy Lee Jones excels at playing easily annoyed enforcers of the law. Robert De Niro has played his role so many times, in both comedies and serious dramas, that he could be sleepwalking and you’d never know the difference. A truly surreal moment comes when Giovanni is asked to partake in a film debate. The intended film was to have been “Some Came Running,” starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, but is changed at the last minute. “Some Came Running” is relatable enough for Giovanni, himself being a novelist with a dark background, but it’s when the replacement film turns out to be “Goodfellas” that things get really interesting. Aside from the fact that this gives Giovanni a forum to openly talk about his history in the mob, the vision of a Robert De Niro character watching another Robert De Niro movie is just brilliant.

Where “The Family” goes wrong is in its imperfect balance of comedy and violence. The climax focuses so much on the exchange of gunfire that it seems comedy stepped out for a smoke break and forgot to return. I expected a little more from the director of “Léon: The Professional” and “The Fifth Element,” as well as the writer of “District 13” and the “Taken” movies. Perhaps Luc Besson will have better luck with his next movie, the soon-to-be released “Lucy” starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman… or perhaps it will be burdened by an imbalance of its own, this time because of a reliance on special effects. One area in which Besson has remained consistent is his ability to make his movies look interesting, whether because of the subject matter, the casting, or a mixture of both. “The Family,” while not a modern classic like some of Besson’s other works, is entertaining enough that it is easy to have fun with it. Fun, dare I say it, for the whole family.

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