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19 Sep 2013

Not All in 'The Family': De Niro and Pfeiffer Are Fine, but the Mafia-Comedy Script, Direction Let Them Down

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Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro in The Family. Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro in The Family.

The Family tries to be many movies at once—and none of them are any good. The result is an overcooked mafia comedy laced with jarringly inappropriate violence and jokes that only its writers would enjoy.

The Family wants to be a comedy, but it isn’t funny. At times, it wants to be a scary and realistic take on mafia life, but it lacks tension. It also wants to be a family drama, but none of its characters can be taken seriously. It also boasts an over-stylized, fairy-tale quality that makes the undertaking a weird, unbalanced experience.

Robert De Niro plays Giovanni, a mafia hit-man who has ratted out his co-workers and has been relocated with his family to Normandy, France, where he receives a new name, Fred Blake. His wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter, Belle (Dianna Agron of Glee), and son, Warren (John D’Leo), all seem rather forgiving of Fred’s past evil ways, and take to their new town with varying degrees of acceptance and criminal behavior.

De Niro has mined this sort of material before with Analyze This, and its sorry sequel, Analyze … Oh Stop It, Already! While he went with parody in those movies, he plays it straight and mellow in this one—except for when the plumber tries to screw him over; then he goes into Travis Bickle mode, with the sort of violence that doesn’t feel appropriate in a stylish comedy.

Perhaps the biggest film in the early portion of Pfeiffer’s career was Married to the Mob, and her Maggie character is essentially a replay. The thick New York accent and eye-rolling here reminds of her past glory, but they do little to make this movie original or intriguing. It’s a shame, because Pfeiffer is an interesting actress who isn’t getting very many good roles these days.

Agron’s portion of the movie is the most annoying and discordant. Her character is a high school virgin who is looking to lose it to a young man studying to be a teacher. She’s capable of breaking your ass with a tennis racket if you try to take advantage of her, and she’s a hopeless romantic who thinks suicide is the answer when a man rejects her. She’s also a crack shot with a handgun when mobsters show up. She’s a whole lot of things—and none of them make a lick of sense.

As for D’Leo, his story involves dealing with bullies at school. He hatches some sort of plan involving sports trading cards that never gets spelled out, and finds himself in trouble for stuff that is never made clear. Like Agron’s character, his story arc feels incomplete, misguided, unfulfilling and far from funny.

There’s a dopey subplot involving Giovanni and his yearning to be an author. He’s writing some hackneyed novel/memoir that raises the ire of the agent assigned to watch him (Tommy Lee Jones, who acts as if he’s in a movie that is supposed to be serious).

At one point, the people in their small town invite Giovanni to some sort of film-society screening to give commentary on a movie. That movie winds up being Goodfellas—which should’ve provided a chance for De Niro to perform some good self-parody. Instead, Besson blows this opportunity: The moment winds up feeling desperate and muted.

There are some other little nods to American mobster movies and TV shows that also don’t work. Vincent Pastore shows up as a character named Fat Willy. Pastore, of course, played Big Pussy on The Sopranos. So instead of being a large vagina, he is now a big dick.

Besson has done good (Léon: The Professional and The Fifth Element) and bad (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and this) as a director. I’ve come to the conclusion that he is a better visual artist than a complete storyteller. When he puts words to his visuals, they don’t match—and his formula really doesn’t work when applied to a giggly mafia story.

The Family has an identity crisis. The performances aren’t half bad. In fact, you could argue that De Niro and Pfeiffer are actually quite good in the thing. Unfortunately, they are slaves to a script that doesn’t know what it is trying to say—and a director more interested in a film that’s pretty rather than coherent.

The Family is playing at theaters across the valley.

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