The Family (2013)
“Robert De Niro is one killer dad.”
Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones
Synopsis: The Manzoni family, a notorious mafia clan, is relocated to Normandy, France under the witness protection program, where fitting in soon becomes challenging as their old habits die hard.
Fifteen years ago, a cast list featuring the likes of Robert De Niro (The Godfather Part II, Midnight Run), Michelle Pfeiffer (Scarface, Married to the Mob) and Tommy Lee Jones would pretty much have guaranteed a quality production but, because of their advancing years and some quite frankly ill-advised role choices, by 2013 that was no longer such a certainty. However, Luc Besson, the co-writer and director of The Family, has crafted an enjoyable comedy crime movie filled with his usual quirky observations and a European sensibility that may not sit comfortably with American audiences expecting more conventionally mainstream Hollywood fare.
De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, a former Mafioso turned state’s witness who now lives under the witness protection programme with his highly dysfunctional family. However, Manzoni, now living under the guise of Fred Blake, has a tough time living under the restrictions imposed upon him by his handler, Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) and struggles to prevent himself from reverting to old habits whenever somebody crosses his path. His family also finds it difficult to adjust to law-abiding anonymity. His wife, Maggie (Pfeiffer) is a vengeful arsonist, his apparently sweet-natured daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) has violent anger management issues, and his son, Warren (John D’Leo) is shaping up to be an expert criminal fixer.
After apparently nearly blowing their cover in their previous home, The Blakes are moved to the sleepy Normandy village of Cholong-sur-Avres, an environment to which they’re entirely unsuited: Giovanni severely beats a plumber who suspects is trying to rip him off, Maggie torches the village’s small supermarket after overhearing the manager and a few of his customers insulting Americans, Belle delivers a beating to a local boy for attempting to make a move on her, and Warren expertly negotiates the aid of a number of local kids in his plan to exact violent revenge on one of the local bullies.
Despite the Blakes’ anti-social tendencies, Besson and co-writer Michael Caleo somehow manage to keep us liking each member of the family as they go about their bizarre business. In truth, they’re written like an ordinary family, but one for which violence and subterfuge is a natural form of self-expression, and Besson uses most moviegoers’ usual sneaking admiration for screen villains to his advantage, particularly when he references Goodfellas, a previous De Niro movie, in a wonderful scene. He’s also careful to ensure that those who feel the wrath of the Blakes are entirely deserving of their fates. De Niro gives one of his best performances in years, while Pfeiffer, who still looks svelte and attractive despite now being well into her fifties, provides an admirable foil for him ,even though they lack the chemistry that might have elevated The Family up a level.
The Family isn’t a great movie, but it’s a pretty good one, that relies perhaps a little too heavily on a series of outrageous coincidences which combine to reveal the Blakes’ whereabouts to the Mafia leader imprisoned as a result of Manzoni’s testimony. In Besson’s defence, that coincidence is well-staged and given cheeky prominence, as if the Frenchman is aware of its audacity but perfectly willing to brazen it out in order to get his story told, and it sets up a terrific showdown in the final reel.