“The Family” Movie Review

     In much the same way he did in “Analyze This”, Robert De Niro plays a caricature of himself in director Luc Besson’s new film “The Family”.  A part comedic farce, part serious, and an overall by the numbers affair that can’t seem to decide on what it wants to be or what tone it intends to maintain.  You have so many stories going on amongst the film’s characters individually, that the idea of this being a family is lost almost completely.  Besson’s recent success with the “Taken” franchise lends a bit to the film’s third act and it’s requirement for mayhem, but for the most part “The Family” follows the standard “fish out of water” formula with each character falling in line exactly as you think they will once you meet them.

     De Niro plays mobster turned federal witness Giovanni Manzoni, a highly successful leader in a Brooklyn based crime family who snitched on his boss and now remains under the watchful eye of witness protection with his family.  As we learn early, the group has been moved several times by FBI Agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) due to the family’s cover being compromised for one reason or another.  This is typically due to Giovanni, now Fred Blake, returning to his old methods of enforcement when someone doesn’t see things his way.

     As the story begins, the family arrives via car to their new home in Normandy, France.  The first act is essentially dedicated to a series of scenes depicting each family members difficulty blending into their new surroundings.  Maggie (Michelle Pfieffer), Fred’s wife, exacts revenge on a group of rude grocery store employees in much the same way she may have handled business in Brooklyn back in the day.  The couple’s teenage children, Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo), attend a new high school and encounter the same general issues any new kids in school would endure.  Warren ,in particular, wastes no time getting in on the school’s illegal action and finds himself the target of the school’s administration when he’s caught running drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, test cheating, and other activities he likely learned from his father’s influence.

     None of this is really original and plays just as one would expect.  As the story moves to the second act, the primary focus is on Fred and his inability to cope with the fact he is hidden from his previous life as he looks for things to pass the time.  He decides to write his memoirs and this does two things.  First and foremost, it gives Besson the excuse to flashback to Fred’s violent past, giving the audience a glimpse of the serious side of the kind of business he was in.  Secondly, it gets the wheels turning for the next compromising of the family’s current location, which infuriates a very game and dead serious Stansfield.

      Because Fred is writing his memoirs, he mentions to several of the neighbors he is a writer and is currently writing about World War 2.  In one of the film’s most ironic moments, one of the neighbors invites Fred to a film society debate on a war movie.  When the proceedings begin, the host announces the film they had scheduled never made it, but they have another film to show.  That film happens to be “Goodfellas”, which brings a smile to Fred, since he knows he can speak on that topic with ease, as well as the audience since we know De Niro was the lead in that film as well. 

     As the third act arrives, the tone of the film changes completely.  Besson cuts to a conveniently empty train station to show us the arrival of a group of cartoonish mob hit men, who also seem to be the only ones on the train as well.  The time isn’t depicted as very late at night, but no one is on the streets of Normandy.  No cars, no people, just the mob goons making their way to what we know will be the big showdown.  Suddenly blood and guts splatter everywhere, many people are gruesomely killed, and you’re scratching your head thinking “I thought this was supposed to be a comedy?”  If you thought that, you’d be mistaken because Besson pours it on in the end, making “The Family” a full on action film that happens to have an unorthodox set up.

     As a whole, “The Family” seems painfully average and doesn’t really add up to much.  The film is well made and expertly executed, but De Niro has played this role over a dozen times during his lengthy career and he’s even parodied himself several times already. Pfeiffer makes a welcome return to the big screen, but she merely gets the scraps left by De Niro and Jones who become the focal point of the story midway through.  I often wonder why actors of this caliber sign up for these types of roles, knowing the younger generations will remember them from films like this, rather than the films older generations know them for.  I can assure you no one will ever use “The Family” as the topic of a film society debate, nor will it deserve being mentioned along side De Niro’s many great roles in film history.  Besson has simply recycled De Niro’s most iconic characters and has presented them as if they were something fresh and new.  It’s as if Hollywood has reached a new level of unoriginality.  GRADE: C-