When properly applied, bad taste can have a wonderfully liberating, palliative effect, and contemporary French cinema has produced few more discerning mainstream vulgarians than Luc Besson. But without any sense of joy in transgression, or real humor behind all the bloody irony, his mafia comedy “The Family” falls flat. Curiously airless, weightless and tonally uncertain, the pic mixes mass murder, dismemberment and rape threats with sappy sentimentality, fish-out-of-water gags and groan-worthy meta-humor, yet very little of it manages to leave any impression. Worth seeing only to catch cast standout Michelle Pfeiffer recapture hints of the knives-out nastiness of her “Scarface” and “Married to the Mob” roles, this Relativity release nonetheless ought to do decent business.
It isn’t that “The Family” doesn’t have any good ideas. In fact, it might have too many. Picking up with a mafia family as they arrive at a creaky house in Normandy — the latest of many witness-relocation destinations for Brooklyn wiseguy-turned-snitch Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) — Besson would seem to have a full palette with which to paint. Watching Giovanni employ leg-breaking tactics to negotiate buck-passing French bureaucracy theoretically ought to resonate with disgruntled expats and Francophobes. (And in surer hands, De Niro’s role as a domesticated heavy still very much in touch with his sociopathic tendencies could have been a sly upending of his “Analyze This” and “Meet the Parents” parts.) Then there’s his 17-year-old daughter, Belle (Dianna Agron), whose sudden shifts from moony high-school romanticism to brutal violence would seem to have plenty of potential. And the Cosa Nostra strategies 14-year-old Warren (John D’Leo) uses to negotiate lycee politics could have perhaps made for a whole film on their own.
None of these are the most original of conceits (and the script never bothers to complicate or question any of its dunderheaded-Americans/effete-Frenchmen stereotypes), though they ought to at least be expected to provide decent distraction from the central plotline pitting Giovanni against a tireless would-be assassin (Jimmy Palumbo). But the film never seems aware it can follow any of these paths to interesting destinations, instead simply tossing a handful of one-joke sketches into a narrative Cuisinart and serving the resulting puree raw.
Always an efficient orchestrator of balls-out ultraviolence, Besson has never quite grasped the rhythms of English-language comedy, and his earlier English pictures, like “The Fifth Element,” largely succeeded through megalomaniacal moxie alone. “The Family” showcases a slower, quieter strain of Besson’s signature style, yet it’s scarcely any smarter, and even its better comedic ideas wind up diluted by overly orchestrated setups or fumbled payoffs.
There’s no guilty glee in the sight of mob mother Maggie (Pfeiffer) blowing up a grocery store whose proprietor dares scoff at her peanut-butter fixation, and the explanation for an early scene in which the supposedly undercover family throws a barbecue for the entire town seems to have been left on the cutting-room floor. (The less said about the Martin Scorsese reference, the better.) For a film set in Normandy from a French writer-director (Besson and Michael Caleo adapted the script from Tonino Benacquista’s novel), it never even feels particularly French: Having every character onscreen speak perfect English is obviously a commercial necessity, yet it’s scarcely acknowledged that this is not the town’s native language.
These minor quibbles aside, “The Family” is technically well made, and Besson is still capable of staging horrifying murders and torture scenes in a uniquely casual, matter-of-fact way. A characteristically sharp Pfeiffer provides most of the pic’s genuine laughs and nearest attempts at actual empathy, and it must be said that De Niro is at least never caught sleepwalking. Tommy Lee Jones, however, seems entirely disengaged in his scenes as Giovanni’s FBI handler.