Luc Besson’s The Family is a fish-out-of-water story about a previously mob-affiliated family sent to France as part of the witness protection program. The patriarch of the family, Giovanni Manzoni (De Niro) has turned informant on his gangster friends, forcing him to change his name to Fred Blake and move himself, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and his two kids Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo) into hiding in the sleepy town of Normandy. They inhabit a boring day to day life and are implored by the leathery-faced agent Stansfield (the ever deadpan Tommy Lee Jones) to assimilate and become a part of their newfound community. Eventually, each family member, independent of each other and motivated by their own personal malefic traits, reverts to their previous comfort zone of doing bad gangster things. Problems arise when the mob figures out where they are hiding and sends a team of hit men out to send them to their graves.
The Family is essentially well trod upon gangster territory, but with the intersection of familial warmth and genuinely funny writing, the film takes the single Sinatra-soaked note of “wise guy cliché” and weaves it into something new and refreshing. Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer are believable as both the archetypical kingpin couple of the mob as well as an aging husband and wife. The chemistry that they share on screen makes for some genuine comedy without relying on “you talkin’ to me?” type self-referrential in-jokes. Their kids in the movie, played by Dianna Agron (whose face reminds me of a young Cameron Diaz) and John D’Leo (whose entire persona reminds me of a pre-teen Robert De Niro) deftly portray kids who are both anguished at a new school and budding criminal masterminds. The standout comedic performance of the movie goes to Tommy Lee Jones, whose quick tongue and rugged exterior belie the hilarity of all that he’s saying throughout the movie.
With his recent output of action-packed clunkers such as Taken 2 and The Transporter, it’s easy to dismiss director Luc Besson as someone who crested early in his career with movies like Leon: The Professional. The Family redeems him by showing how he knows the gangster genre well enough to approach it in a playful manner, something that, in the hands of a lesser director, could have been supremely disastrous. The story is told straight and without filler, and still pays homage to its great gangster flick predecessors. Sure, there are some hard to swallow plot lines that move the film forward, but with these likable characters and this well written script, it’s easier to dismiss the parts that give pause to the scrutinizing viewer.
Overall, The Family is a warm and funny movie, sure to bring a smile to the face of even the most hardened leg breaker. A well selected cast and good writing make the less appealing points of the movie not as intrusive to its enjoyment. Great directing by Besson allows the stars to shine and makes a movie that will hold its own in a genre of well loved wise guys.
The Family opens today in Philly area theaters.