It’s been a while since we’ve seen a really solid mafia comedy. Back in the ’80s, we got everything from the good (Married to the Mob), the bad (Brian de Palma’s awful Wise Guys), and the ugly (Steve Martin in My Blue Heaven???). But with the birth of HBO’s The Sopranos in 1999, the entire gangster genre was reinvented, using a more varied and realistic approach to what was before mostly overwrought and operatic. Humor was now part of the process, if just barely.
Now famed French flip-flopper Luc Besson (Is he still retired? Not retired? Just taking a break from said retreat?) is trying to reinvigorate the Cosa Nostra as a jokefest, and with The Family, he might just succeed. Sure, it’s about as authentic as Bugs Bunny battling Daffy Duck to avoid Elmer Fudd’s double-barreled buffoonery, but as a welcome relief from the writer/director’s usual hyper-kinetic action overkill, it’s a lot of fun.
Robert De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, a highly-placed mobster who ratted out his friends. He’s now in hiding as part of the Witness Protection Program, something that drives his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), son Warren (John D’Leo) and daughter Belle (Dianna Argon) to distraction. They have moved several times, under the direction of harried CIA agent Tom Quintiliani (Tommy Lee Jones), and now find themselves in a little town near Normandy, in France. As part of his new identity, Giovanni becomes a “writer” named “Fred Blake.” While his family goes around causing trouble — taking down bullies, emasculating horny boys, blowing up snooty French markets — our hero hopes to sit back and pen his memoirs (under the guise of writing about D-Day, naturally). When his cover is once again blown, his former compatriots come after him. After all, there’s a $20 million bounty on his head.
The Family is a lot of fun. It’s also forced, frequently incomprehensible, and overflowing with unnecessary Besson quirks. Throughout his career, the man behind such films as The Professional, The Fifth Element, and about a dozen Transporter titles has relied on a very Three Stooges style of storytelling strategy. Put another way, Besson definitely believes that violence solves everything, cinematically speaking of course. Why have witty dialogue or clever banter when you can have your characters unloading clip after clip of ammunition into their targets? Why try and develop a real sense of character and circumstance when a fistfight and some bloodletting will provide some respite? In Besson’s movie world, might is always right.
This doesn’t mean though that The Family falters because of the brutality. Instead, Besson uses hostility like a one liner. He takes the concept of a “punchline” literally. He’s also a wiz at casting, providing De Niro and Pfeiffer with their juiciest roles in quite a while. The artist formerly known as an Oscar winner for The Godfather Part 2 and Raging Bull is particularly engaging, casting off his previous aura of paycheck productivity to infuse Giovanni/Fred with a real sense of merriment and menace. Sure, Besson is a bit shorthanded in his visualization of various Italian types, but this is supposed to be a comedy, not a commentary. We even get a meta moment that will make Scorsese-ites sit up and smile.
As long as you don’t take it too seriously or think that Besson is belittling an entire cultural heritage with his sometimes goofy gimmicks, The Family will fulfill your post-summer season needs. It’s entertaining enough to be a winner without warranting the kind of instant dismissal an early fall film — or something by modern Besson — typically deserves.