A bourgeois burglar and his brood are the subjects of "Family Business," a surprisingly shapeless comedy-drama by Costa-Gavras, the director of such taut political thrillers as "Missing" and "Z." He's created a sprawling, unfocused trifle, like timid, underdone Truffaut. It's not "Z," but "Ze Farce," with all the blabby weaknesses of French family fiction and none of its strength of characters.
The story, from the novel by Francis Ryck, follows a family of safecrackers, as seen through the eyes of the 13-year-old son Franc ois. The parental antiheroes are fallow, phlegmatic fellows -- underdeveloped and unnurtured by the director and his actors, Johnny Hallyday as Father and Guy Marchand as his partner Faucon. They're upwardly mobile, middle-class miscreants who become major crime figures backed by a supportive, extended family.
Fanny Ardant is the fussy, love-besotted Mother, with Laurent Romor as Franc ois and Juliette Rennes as his sicko baby sister Martine. Mother tries to provide a Cosby Kid kind of upbringing for the youngsters, but they've inherited larcenous genes. Martine eavesdrops and shoplifts and wants her brother to get her pregnant; Franc ois merely blackmails his way into the family business by threatening to squeal to the cops. The kid computerizes the operation, profits increase enormously, and the family becomes ever more extravagant.
A shallow Costa-Gavras merely glances at the empty, immoral interpersonal relationships, preferring to concentrate on the life styles of the rich and infamous. But it's not a visual feast. It's merely scenic.
Ardant, with a lean face like Seattle Slew's, is a thoroughbred of an actress, gangly and spirited, but she has a limiting part. She gives Father lusty looks, cuddles the kids and sometimes saws a cello while hubby cracks safes with Faucon. Marchand, so memorable as the blockheaded husband of "Entre Nous," is a lump here, while Hallyday, a French rock star, is chilly and remote.
The story is narrated by a reformed Franc ois, who has finally overcome his father's tyranny to develop his own sense of fair play. It's an anticlimax, as if Costa-Gavras just happened on the ending after diddling with any number of possible outcomes. With no empathy for comedy and no passion for his subject, he can't even get laughs when a couple of fat, drunken Bulgarians in striped pajamas and hightops interrupt a heist. Family Business, at area theaters, is unrated but contains profanity and partial nudity.