Release: Thursday, September 12, 2013
One can only hope that Robert DeNiro does not go out with a whimper. I mean, it’s still a little early to say the man’s at that point but come on — he is now 70 years old and a few of his latest choices — New Year’s Eve; Killing Season; The Big Wedding (!!!) — have been a little more than questionable. As much as it pains me to report, The Family does not even come close to planing out this late-stage career nosedive.
Luc Besson’s latest is an unrelentingly dark “comedy” about a mob family (like, an actual family…not the term used among mob bosses) that has been placed into witness protection. They’ve most recently been relocated to Normandy, France, where they blow their cover when everyone reverts back to their gangster-ass ways of dealing with their situations. CIA Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) does everything he can to keep the family safe but inevitably the antics of one Giovanni Manzoni (DeNiro), along with the rest of his demented clan, prove too unwieldy (and public) and eventually the mob dispatches a ruthless hitman (Jon Freda) to “clean up” the town in which they’re hiding out.
After snitching on the mob, Giovanni (a.k.a. “Fred Blake”) finds it difficult to live a more low-key life. He feels that by writing out his life’s story on a typewriter, his guilt and dark past may not haunt him any longer. Confined to a greenhouse-like extension of his new home, he engages in something of a psychopathic psychotherapy session. His wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) is not happy about his decision to describe their past activities and identities, and Agent Stansfield doesn’t exactly approve, either. This would eventually turn out to become his biggest downfall as wind picks up about the lies he’s been telling the locals: that he’s a writer and he’s doing some research in Normandy for a new book.
Despite the film’s admittedly playful tone, and barring one or two downright hilarious moments, it boasts a gut wrenchingly awful script that’s intended to subvert the gangster/crime film; all it really does is pervert the concept of tongue-in-cheek comedy. It stumbles, bumbles, mumbles and eventually crumbles into pieces that loosely resemble the good old days of DeNiro’s very moley-smile as a ruthless mobster. However, this was hardly a tribute to those days. . . it was more like a butchering of it. The humor ends up becoming overwhelmed by the violence, some of which would be acceptable to turn one’s head away from.
The same could be said about the jokes that were written.
Most of them do not land whatsoever. We see time and time again flashbacks of DeNiro’s character beating his targets senseless and then some. Where exactly is the funny in dunking a man into a bucket of corrosive acid? Oh yeah, right — his scream when his head plunges into it. Another scene reveals that after his mission has failed to bear any results as to why his water at home is brown and not crystal clear, he has dragged the mayor from the back of his car for some distance — enough to leave the man bloodied and quivering with cowardice. It’s pretty sick to think these could be made into jokes. It’s almost as if the surrounding context of the movie needed to be much more gruesome, more like the movie that’s actually referenced late in this one — more like Goodfellas. There may be gruesome moments to these types of earlier works as well, but at least they were put into perspective. Each time an act of violence jumps out on the screen, it’s jarring and far more shocking than the comedy is relieving. (There’s only so many times Robert DeNiro can say the word ‘F**k’ in a single line of dialogue to get some chuckles.)
If you saw someone stumble and trip down the aisle only to fall flat on their face as they exited the theater, that would be more funny than most of this film. Coincidentally, that’s the brand of humor you’ll find throughout. It’s simply not a successful experiment on Besson’s part, and there’s no denying the deepening of the blemish on DeNiro’s career as of late. That being said, reasons are in short supply as to why Tommy Lee Jones comes off as such a drag here, as well. His CIA Agent, though clearly not a vehicle for comedic relief, is a blunt, boring old fart that is more reminiscent of Agent Kay after getting his memory wiped by the neuralizer.
The film has some semblance of redemption in young actors John D’Leo, who plays the son, Warren, and the beautiful Dianna Agron who is Belle Manzoni (how this girl is meant to be from an Italian upbringing is beyond me, but I won’t complain). The two share some strong moments — arguably some of the best in the entire film — and their experiences as they spend their time trying to fit in at school serves as a mildly amusing subplot.
As for the rest, though, its an embarrassing mess for everyone involved. The film cannot decide what to do with itself in terms of the tone; often its simply too dark to even be considered an action-comedy. When it lightens up, the story gets rather boring and was enough to put one of the viewers to sleep, apparently. Maybe that guy just needed some rest, because he told me he tuned out about twenty minutes in. Or perhaps that’s all you need to know about The Family — it’s one you won’t want to really visit. Not even for the holidays.
Recommendation: The DeNiro faithful may still find a few things to like about this, however this is a film these folks will likely be seeking out long after they’ve cycled through the rest of his catalogue, probably twice or three times at least. Also, anyone who is a believer in a movie having a strong conclusion should definitely stay away.
Running Time: 112 mins.