The Family: Unsuitable for All Ages

With a PG brain and a NC-17 body count, the Luc Besson-directed De Niro vehicle is a cinematic Frankenstein.
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EuropaCorp; Relativity Media

A charming old house in Normandy... fingers that gently caress a vintage typewriter before settling in for a little hunt and peck--didn't I just watch this movie? It's like whatever's French for déjà vu, all over again.

Well, for a couple of minutes at least. Alas, it quickly becomes clear that this is the full extent of overlap between director Luc Besson's action-comedy The Family, and Populaire, the slight-but-delicious French romantic trifle released on these shores last week. This time around, the hands on the typewriter belong to "Fred Blake," a.k.a. Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro), a former Mafia crime lord and budding memoirist relocated to France as part of the witness protection program. He and his family had initially been stashed in Paris, but undisclosed misbehaviors necessitated that they be moved, first to the Riviera and, now, to a sleepy village in Normandy. Tough life! It's almost enough to make the most law-abiding among us contemplate a career in crime and snitchery.

The Manzonis, however--including wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), and son Warren (John D'Leo)--are vexed by their new accommodations. When the grocery-store locals snicker at Maggie (because, you know, the French are rude and don't like Americans), she nonchalantly burns the place to the ground; when a minor-league sexual aggressor makes a move on Belle (get it? He's French!), she beats him half to death with a tennis racquet.

And that's just in the movie's first 10 minutes. The foundational joke of The Family, decades out of date and repeated well beyond the point of exhaustion, is that a) French people are snobby, condescending, and unhelpful; and b) the Manzonis respond to said snobbery, condescension, and unhelpfulness with made-in-America ultraviolence: maiming one unfortunate Gaul with a baseball bat and sledge hammer, dragging another behind his own motorcycle, and so on. For those filmgoers whose carnal appetites are still unsated, the film offers the many corpses accumulated by a mob hitman who's been sent to kill the Giovannis, as well as an attempted rape and a subplot involving underage sex (consummated) and suicide (deterred at the last moment) that seems engineered to offend viewers from each and every point on the political spectrum.

Make no mistake. The Family is in no way a dark or edgy or shocking film. It is merely an appallingly ill-conceived genre mistake, a soggily conventional studio comedy ineptly interwoven with a bloody-minded crime movie. Besson has bounced around directorially for the past several years, from his animated franchise Arthur and the Invisibles to his Aung San Suu Kyi biopic The Lady. (These forays are in addition to his almost absurdly prolific work as a writer and producer.) But his deficiencies have seldom been on clearer display than they are here, as he fails utterly to find the requisite balance between comedy, action, and melodrama.

De Niro, for his part, does the best he can with the material he's afforded, having now spent at least as much of his career offering comic sendups of his early dramatic personae as he did developing those personae in the first place. Pfeiffer, too, gives a likably nostalgic performance, digging deep in her closet of accents to slip back on an Upper-Jersey, Married to the Mob soprano (the vocal pitch, not the family). Agron, by contrast, who left the cast of Glee in order to take the role of Belle, sadly proves no more interesting on the big screen than she did on the small one. Meanwhile, as much as I (and presumably he) would prefer his participation to go unremarked, I feel obligated to note that Tommy Lee Jones also stars, in perhaps the most thankless role of his career, as an incomprehensibly ineffectual CIA agent. And as long as we're apportioning due credit, it bears mentioning that Martin Scorsese is listed as an executive producer, a fact that serves primarily to make an extended and uninspired gag about Goodfellas feel even more forced than necessary.

Like Getaway, its co-tenant in the cinematic purgatory of late-summer/early-fall, The Family is set in a foreign land in which scarcely anyone is gauche enough ever to speak a foreign word (at least beyond "au revoir" and "je ne sais quoi"). But where the former movie seemed like an adolescent entertainment trying desperately to act grown up, Besson's film, despite its R-rating, gives the impression of an adult product cynically repackaged as "family friendly." The result is a movie with a PG brain and a NC-17 body count, unsuitable for audiences of any age. 

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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