Although French super-producer Luc Besson has scripted a number of action films over the past decade and helmed a few oddball motion pictures, he hasn’t directed an idiosyncratic movie since The Fifth Element back in 1997. However, that all changes with the release of 2013’s The Family. Written by Besson and Michael Caleo, it’s not a patch on the director’s best efforts (1994’s Léon: The Professional is his crowning achievement), and it can be criticised for its bizarre storytelling, jarring tonal shifts and lack of sophistication, but it’s nevertheless a lot of fun. While it’s nothing memorable and it won’t be a contender in this year’s Oscar race, it has the potential to leave movie-goers with a smile on their faces. And considering all of 2013’s misfires and disappointments, the fact that The Family is genuinely entertaining and watchable makes it worth at least a minor recommendation.
A former mob boss who’s been marked for death after ratting out his friends, Giovanni (Robert De Niro) is placed in the Witness Protection Program, which irks his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), son Warren (John D’Leo) and daughter Belle (Dianna Argon). The family are consistently moving from place to place under the direction of an agitated CIA agent (Tommy Lee Jones), and now find themselves in a small town near Normandy in France. Taking on the new identity of Fred Blake, Giovanni decides to sit back and pen his memoirs, while his family use their various talents to cause mischief around the local area. But as the family deal with their respective problems, a greater threat emerges, as the men looking for Giovanni are on the verge of uncovering his new location.
The Family derives its humour from the cultural conflict which arises as a result of these American mobsters trying to fit into quaint, provincial French culture. From this, Besson creates a collection of amusing vignettes and moments hung onto the narrative framework, resulting in an admittedly interesting comedy that nevertheless lacks a proper through-line. It feels like a tremendously disorganised experience – De Niro delivers voiceovers on occasion, none of the characters are given the rich development they need, the pacing is strange, and even bad dreams and flashbacks are used, not to mention Besson unsuccessfully veers between the comedic and the outright mean-spirited. It’s problematic that the film opens with the gruesome massacre of a family that’s borderline uncomfortable to watch, and a few scenes later we’re watching funny dialogue between Giovanni and his family.
Keeping The Family afloat are the competent technical contributions across the board, as well as the fact that the humour is actually very funny. There are some darkly comic moments that made this reviewer laugh out loud, and there’s even a meta gag that will please Martin Scorsese fans. Being a Luc Besson movie, it does contain its fair share of fisticuffs and violence too, which is primarily relegated to the picture’s third act. Once Giovanni’s enemies catch up to him, Besson has great fun staging action beats, which earns the picture’s R rating due to the excessive violence. It’s good fun, and although nobody will ever accuse the storytelling of being coherent or classy, The Family is always strangely watchable.
After years of coasting through his film roles for the money, De Niro seems to be awake here, and actually having fun in the role of Giovanni. It’s not a vintage De Niro performance by any stretch, but there’s genuine energy and substance to his character, which is miraculous considering most of his other recent work. Pfeiffer also handles the role of Maggie like a pro, with charm and comedic punch that’s beneficial. Equally good are the kids, with D’Leo a nicely quirky presence, while Agron actually gives the production a few welcome moments of gravitas. Tommy Lee Jones is not the best that we’ve ever seen him, but he manages to be funny from time to time, and he suits his role nicely.
It’s hard to predict anyone’s reaction to The Family, as it’s not great cinema and it’s certainly no classic, but it’s goofy and watchable, and it made this reviewer laugh on several occasions. As long as you’re not seeking another rich drama like Léon: The Professional, this movie should fulfil your post-summer viewing needs.