Friday, September 13, 2013

Day 238: The Family

"Just trust me, okay? There's gonna be a line out the door like this place was a whorehouse."
Since his first big breakout feature in America, Leon (The Professional), director Luc Besson has proven to be a much more prolific producer than director. When it was announced that he was directing his first English language film since 1999's The Messenger, expectations were high, despite the fact that most of his features as a director have been underwhelming. However, The Family looked promising, with a trio pedigreed actors in the leads and Martin Scorsese aboard as an executive producer. Could it buck the trend? Read on to find out...
Giovanni Manzoni (Robert DeNiro) is a former mafioso who is in witness protection in France along with his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfieffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) & son Warren (John D'Leo). His family seems to cause trouble no matter where they go, and the film opens with them being relocated to Normandy after a disastrous stay in the south of France. It isn't long before they're starting trouble in their new home, much to the chagrin of Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) the agent assigned to their case.
Now dubbed the Blake family, dad sets about torturing and maiming anyone who he feels is disrespecting him, mom is an equally loose cannon, Belle finds creative ways to deal with lecherous French teenage boys & Warren runs the school in a similar manner to a junior mafioso himself. After a comically absurd series of events, the incarcerated Don Luchese (Stan Carp) gets wind of their new location and dispatches his hitmen to take care of this family once and for all. 
The most pressing issue with The Family is that it has a serious identity crisis. Is it a comedy with unnecessarily serious moments? Is it a drama with jarringly tone deaf attempts at comedy? Is it an action film? A gangster film? A fish out of water, strangers in a strange land tale? It appears to be attempting all of these things at once. Utilizing DeNiro in this type of role seems like a stroke of genius on the surface, but the film seems to want him to be both his character from Goodfellas and Meet the Parents all at the same time. It's a convoluted mess of a film that played like a raucous comedy to half the audience at my screening, which was unsettling at best, to be honest.
The film's "comedy" comes almost exclusively from violent scenarios. Are we supposed to think it's funny that mom blows up a grocery store because the clerks were rude? Should we chuckle at dad's violent fantasies where he holds men's heads to a charcoal grill after he thinks they're condescending towards him? In fact, it's almost hard to believe this film was directed by a Frenchman, because all of these acts of violence, save the final fifteen minutes, happen as a result of ugly Americans clashing with rude French citizens. If it is a comedy, it's one of the most violent & mean spirited ones I have ever seen.
The film is also awash with muddled references, such as when DeNiro's character is asked to attend and lead a debate on the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin film Some Came Running, but a last minute issue with the print forces the audience in attendance to watch Goodfellas instead. So we're left to imagine a world where we, the audience, are watching Robert DeNiro the actor watching a film with Robert DeNiro the actor in it... It's too muddled and confusing for me to handle. It's not too far off from The Expendables films where the characters call one another by names of other characters that the actors have played in other films. It's far too confusing to actually generate laughs. 
As for the performances, they're all fine, if derivative of other performances they've already given. DeNiro takes a little from column A (Goodfellas) and a little from column B (Meet the Parents) and ends up with a performance that's no better or worse than we've come to expect from him in the years since 1997, his last truly great year as an actor. Pfeiffer is enjoyable, playing a variation on her role in Married to the Mob, but she's always fun to watch. Tommy Lee Jones has a corner on the curmudgeon market at this point, so there's no point in even naming the other, identical roles he's played before. D'Leo was probably my favorite of the bunch, playing a great variation on the son who takes up his father's business. 
The script, by Besson and Michael Caleo, based on the novel Malavita by Tonino Benacquista, is the weakest element of the film by far. Besson's direction is snappy and sometimes clever, but the script is such a muddled mess of self-reference, it's virtually impossible to nail down what kind of film it wants to be. I haven't read the source material, but something tells me it all went wrong in the adaptation. It seems like a case of the filmmakers pulling off the casting coup of getting DeNiro involved, and then tailoring the script around him, and ending up with a jumbled mess of nonsense. I refuse to believe this is the best possible version of this story, because the premise has legs. 
As if I haven't made it abundantly clear by now, The Family is a mess of a film. Fans of the gangster films and tv shows of the 90s and early 2000s will find things here and there to chuckle at, including an appearance by Vincent "Big Pussy" Pastore, but more than anything, you'll likely find yourself disappointed by all the squandered potential on display. Besson still has style to spare as a director, and the actors turn in workmanlike performances, but it's all in service of a ham fisted, half baked script with serious identity issues, which ultimately makes it a huge miss.
Go Rating: 2/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

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