Movie review: Little to laugh about in dark comedy ‘The Family’


Married mobsters Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Giovanni (Robert De Niro) are relocated to France — along with their troubled children — as part of the witness protection program in the action comedy “The Family.” (Jessica Forde)
September 12, 2013

There’s not much to laugh about in Luc Besson’s dark comedy “The Family.” The plodding, overlong film follows a former mob boss who snitched on associates and wound up overseas in a witness protection program with his wife and kids. But rather than try to assimilate, the clan can’t stop resorting to its old ways, which consist mainly of inflicting mayhem on innocents.

As the movie opens, Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) is hiding under the pseudonym Fred Blake and moving into a new secret hideaway with wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), son Warren (John D’Leo) and daughter Belle (Dianna Agron). Their noisome personalities and unlawful inclinations have forced the family to quickly uproot from Paris and the French Riviera, so now they’re trying out a tiny town in Normandy. Along for the ride are a few FBI agents, including Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).

Before the quartet unpacks, they’re already up to no good. Most notably, Giovanni has a body to bury and Maggie blows up a grocery store because the proprietor turned her request for peanut butter into a screed against American obesity. (Although it isn’t entirely clear how Maggie understood, since the lecture was delivered in French and she couldn’t even pronounce “peanut butter” in French.) Logic takes a vacation for much of this movie.

Gio and Maggie’s teenagers have picked up a few tricks and traits from their parents. Warren is an accomplished con artist, forger and intel collector, and Belle — a seemingly serene blonde princess — launches into a game of badminton using the face of one of her peers as a shuttlecock. While there is potentially an ounce of poetic justice when Belle unleashes her fury on a boy who boorishly hits on her, there isn’t the same sense of comeuppance when Gio takes people down. When a plumber tries to fleece the mobster, Gio responds by breaking the man’s leg in a dozen places. The infraction committed by another man who gets dragged behind Gio’s car is even less severe.

That’s the main problem with the movie. The Blakes think they’re vigilantes, but in most other movies they’d be the bad guys. Of course, there are worse guys, including a hit man who plans to collect the $20 million bounty on Gio and company’s heads. That portion of the plot gives the story a little jolt, but mostly the film follows along aimlessly as the “Blake” family fails at fitting in.

While De Niro can ace playing a father (he nabbed an Oscar nom for “Silver Linings Playbook”) and a mobster (he won an Academy Award for “The Godfather Part II”), he doesn’t add much here. Neither does Pfeiffer, whose Brooklyn accent is all drawn-out vowels and dropped R’s one moment and gone the next.

After the movie limps along for an hour and a half, Besson suddenly switches gears and does what he does best. A showdown during the last few scenes proves thrillingly suspenseful. Better yet, Gio and his family finally manage to channel their anger toward worthy adversaries rather than defenseless French people. The scenes can hardly qualify as funny, but at least for a few moments, the movie manages to be fun.

“The Family”

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(110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for pervasive violence and language and brief sexuality.

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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