The Family pulls a few punches to get laughs

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Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro are married and in the mob in Luc Besson’s The Family. Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro are married and in the mob in Luc Besson’s The Family.

When I think of Luc Besson or watch one of his movies, the thing I feel most is ambivalence. It’s refreshing to watch a guy use real violence in movies that are supposed to be comedies—violence isn’t all that funny, even when it’s played for laughs. A great example of horrific violence used for comedic purposes is Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain.

The difference is that Pain & Gain knows what it is, which is a lampooning of idiots who got into crime and quickly found themselves over their heads. The Family, Besson’s latest, has violence aplenty, but it’s so at odds with the tone of the rest of the film, it’s hard to know just how to feel.

I’d suggest that that’s Besson’s point—to make his audience feel uneasy at the idea of celebrating a fun-seeming family that uses violence to solve its problems—but that’s not his point. The Family isn’t that ambitious. Here, he just wants to make a movie where Robert De Niro sends up his tough guy image but also gets to remain a tough guy.

Why else would De Niro, as Gio Manzoni, a mafia sub-boss under FBI witness protection in France—he turned on members of his organization—beat up a French plumber who suggests a bribe in order to get a job done a little faster? If Gio (using a fake name, Fred Blake) had read Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, the beating wouldn’t be necessary.

For that matter, why did Fred/Gio turn on his mafia family? Oh yeah, never explained. It’s the height of snobbery to gripe about logic gaps in a Luc Besson movie—the enjoyable The Fifth Element- makes absolutely no sense—but what else have I got when The Family seems so derivative?

For example:

1. Mafia family moves in under pseudonym to a town to avoid getting detected? Check. (See also: My Blue Heaven.)

2. Mafia family tries to live normal life? Check. (See also: The Sopranos.)

3. For God’s sake, the movie’s main character is a rat. (See also: State of Grace, Donnie Brasco, The Departed, and, to a lesser degree, On the Waterfront, and that’s just for starters.)

So what does The Family have going for it? De Niro, who seems to be having genuine fun. Michelle Pfeiffer is his wife, Maggie, who sends up her Married to the Mob character. Then there are the kids, 17-year-old Belle (Dianna Agron), and 14-year-old Warren (John D’Leo), who start running all the cons at their high school.

But for all the fun, there’s the ick factor; characters are dispatched, after 100 minutes of pleasant screen time, mercilessly. And when Belle isn’t being ogled creepily by Besson’s camera (a recurring theme in all his movies that feature young women—so, most of them), she’s beating the shit out of people who take advantage of her. I wonder if anyone else sees irony in Belle turning young men into mincemeat for treating her badly while the director is using her purely as a sex object?

Who knows? But you get where I’m going with the ambivalence thing, right?

 

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