By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Watching director Luc Besson’s “The Family,” about a Brooklyn Mafia clan living in Normandy, France, courtesy of the witness protection program, I speculated how many synonyms for the word seriocomic I would need to write my review. But, as Robert De Niro’s Giovanni Manzoni might be apt to opine, fuhgeddaboutit. There just aren’t many. And they’re mostly unsatisfactory. Which is odd when you consider that life itself is rather seriocomic. You know: 7 years of lean followed by 7 years of fat, more or less.
The difference is, in art the contradicting elements should be arranged to shock, amuse, flummox and get you pondering. While Mr. Besson almost accomplishes that at times, his effort is for the most part a giambotta of disparate notions kept afloat by an engaging troika of stellar veterans and a pair of winning new faces.
However, in order to enjoy the characterizations each member of the title nuclear unit etches, all of them filled with a novel quirkiness, you’ll have to put up with some morally gray conceptions. There are times when the violent stuff crosses your line of good taste…like when innocent folks in the little French village get caught in the crossfire.
Indeed, we become enamored of Brooklyn’s Manzoni family, cold-blooded killers though they may be, due to the provisional dispensation we’ve in recent years come to afford this ilk in return for entertaining us: i.e. “The Sopranos.” I think we also figure they wouldn’t kill us, unless of course we betrayed them.
Still, if you give it some thought, which you’re prone to do when, as in this case, the film isn’t put together too well, what right do the Manzonis have to create all sorts of mayhem at the expense of the guiltless folk who they’ve been inserted among?
True, they dropped a dime on a fellow Mafioso, Don Luchese (Stan Carp), which facilitated his conviction and incarceration. But, like the cartoon cat and mouse that alternate taking turns chasing each other, what if the wise guy the Manzonis helped put away were able to secure a deal with the Feds and he ratted on the Manzonis? Would we like him instead?
There is a naughty empowerment that comes with temporarily befriending a fictional family of murderers. However, if you have ever had the ill fortune of being plopped down among a real life cadre of sociopaths, seeing them caricatured as all sorts of cutesy might not hold such smitten sway.
Of course, had Besson better integrated the incongruities he’s fiddling with, we wouldn’t have the time to second guess the ethics we’re being asked to gloss over. We’d be engrossed instead of skeptical. His only average script doesn’t supply the requisite suspension of disbelief. If you want to enjoy “The Family,” better to leave your common sense and reasoning at home.
Temporarily relinquishing your intellect will allow the always charming Mr. De Niro to inveigle his way into your heart. As Giovanni Manzoni, a.k.a. Fred Blake in this most recent sequestration, he is north of 60 and mulling his legacy. No surprise, just like Old Blue Eyes, his contention, if anyone cares, is that he did it his way.
But for now, as far as his new neighbors are concerned, he is an author writing about the Normandy invasion. The ironic fact is, he’s recently taken to penning his memoirs, the conceit being that putting typewriter key to paper somehow fosters legitimacy. Mr. Manzoni reminds us how great is the human capacity for rationalization. Deeming the whole exercise a case of grand self-delusion, wife Maggie, played with a disarming, no nonsense severity by Michelle Pfeiffer, is the scoffing pragmatist.
The kids, well, they’re kids…teenagers forced to start their umpteenth new school, concerned with all the things other youngsters are consumed by, the only real difference being they have a very high felony I.Q. Belle, splendidly played by Diana Agron, and Warren, exacted with sinister wit by John D’Leo, are to farcical crime drama what Wednesday Addams and Pugsley Addams are to comedy of the occult. In other words, they do the darndest things.
Attempting in vain to serve as moral anchor to the Manzoni family’s escapades is Tommy Lee Jones as long suffering F.B.I. Agent Robert Stansfield. He is part fairy godfather, part guardian angel, and, while forever iterating a devout repugnancy for his charge, Giovanni’s only friend. The craggy-faced journeyman adds a fifth whimsical performance to the feature length essay on contradiction.
Essentially, the moral quandary Mr. Besson perpetrates to render one aghast with laughter relies on convincing us, at least for fictional purposes, that the sanctity of family makes it all right. But this jury isn’t persuaded, and hereby finds that, while tendering some novel moments, “The Family” is guilty of mediocre moviemaking.
“The Family,” rated R, is a Relativity Media release directed by Luc Besson and stars Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Diana Agron. Running time: 111 minutes
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