Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer star in a dark comedy that tells the story of a family trying to escape the fallout from their violent Mafia past.
When the Manzoni family arrive at their rustic new home in Normandy, little do their Gallic neighbours know the mayhem that’s in store. Having snitched on his cohorts back in Brooklyn, Giovanni (De Niro) and his family go under a witness protection scheme, moving from country to country with new identities. Fresh-faced daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D’Leo) go about trying to fit into yet another new school, while wife Maggie (Pfeifer) fills her days searching for peanut butter in the local store. All three of them stick out like a sore thumb, hopelessly trying to make the most of the transient inevitability of their lives.
Giovanni – or Fred as he’s also now known – is bound to the house under the watchful eye of security guards in the opposite building. Finding solace in a dusty old typewriter, he soon realises that storytelling is somewhat of an unearthed talent and sets about writing his memoirs. What follows is a scattering of the film’s best scenes, as we’re treated to flashbacks of mob life back when he was the man who ruled the roost.
Right from the off, director Luc Besson wastes no time in setting the tone for the booming violence that punctuates the film from start to finish. In a crash, bang, wallop opening scene – reminiscent of his iconic Leon – we meet the Mafia hitman who’s hell-bent on hunting down Giovanni and his family and exacting the mob’s grizzly revenge, the story of which adds a deliciously dark undercurrent to proceedings.
Despite being well-executed, it’s this comic-book violence that also lets the film down. All four family members – at times – are depicted as psychopathic lunatics. Belle explodes into a vicious tirade against a creepy admirer with a tennis racket. Maggie blows up the local supermarket in disgust at the owner’s snooty response to her American accent. Warren knocks seven bells out of the school bully. And Giovanni mercilessly maims his way through everyone from the plumber to local fertilizer plant manager. All of this adds up to the feeling that we aren’t watching real people, especially when set against a backdrop of punk-rock guitars and Kill Bill-esque choreography.
Although tonally the film struggles to find its mark, we are on occasion shown glimpses of human beings. When Giovanni and Maggie entwine in an embrace on the sofa, it’s clear there’s more to them than Mafia runaways. Similarly with Belle and Warren, whose caring sister/brother dynamic is touched upon but never truly made clear. It’s this cross-pollination of character development that ultimately makes the film difficult to truly get to grips with.
Despite their struggle to find an identity, it’s the performances of all the lead characters that really holds things together. De Niro does what he does best and is brilliantly watchable as the uncontrollable yet endearing Giovanni. The same can be said of Dianna Agron, who walks the line between crazed wild child and girl-next-door with stony-faced aplomb. Haggard and haunted, Tommy Lee Jones also shines as dour FBI Agent Stansfield.
Regardless of its downfalls, there is no doubting that The Family is a thoroughly enjoyable ride. It rattles along at a slick pace and the closing sequence is everything you could want from a closing crescendo, with guns galor e, sizzling tension and edge-of-your-seat action. If you’re looking for a film that’s darkly entertaining with a few laughs sprinkled along the way, then this is just the ticket.