The Family is good mobster fun, so long as you don't take it too seriously.
Mob movies are a favorite of American moviegoers. For some reason, we root for people which we normally despise as dark and dangerous folk, as greed or the law catches up with them. Comedic mob films somehow allow us to find a happier middle ground, putting a nicer dress on what is usually a dreary affair. The Family is just that sort of movie, a rip-roaringly hilarious film about a mob family under Witness Protection whose penchant for violence makes them more dangerous than the people who are hunting them.
The Manzoni family have been on the run ever since second-generation Giovanni (Robert De Niro) snitched, enjoying life in Witness Protection by smashing and blowing up their way through Europe. If it's not Giovanni, it's his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) or their two children (Dianna Agron and John D'Leo) who are caught in some sort of ultra-violent mishap. When the family is re-re-re-located to Normandy France, all their handler (Tommy Lee Jones) wants them to do is disappear into that quiet town. Before long however, Maggie has blown up the local market, Giovanni has broken the leg of dirty plumber, and Warren has gotten in on the cigarette racket at the local high school. As part of his new identity, Gio decides to assume the role of a writer and sets off to write his memoirs, which is told through a series of funny 'Rule #1' vignettes. Through a strange twist of fate, Giovanni's mob boss learns of his whereabouts and sends a hit squad to take the family out. The result is a bloody third act reminiscent of a Seal Team Six strike than a comedy. But will Gio finish writing his book in time? Will Belle run away with a much older man at her school? Will Maggie ever find peanut butter in this small town?
Besson does a good job of getting the most 'mob' out of Pfeiffer and De Niro, both of whom don't need to do much in that department to begin with. They have terrific chemistry, like a real Brooklyn couple who will fight like cats one minute, then dial up the love in the next. Watching De Niro mock himself is like watching William Shatner do the same - both can play the deadpan so well, with audiences reaping the benefits throughout. Even though his performance in the over-hyped Silver Linings Playbook was not as memorable as others, De Niro shines here as he mocks himself and the genre that made him famous. When asked to attend a film discussion that turns into an impromptu showing of Goodfellas, it's a tip of the hat works flawlessly. I don't think I've ever heard anyone use the 'F' word so often and with such depth. There's even a scene when his son shares his total respect for dad's singular command of it, reminding us why we love De Niro so much. And while he hits every mark, it's Pfeiffer who steals the show. From her penchant for big violence to the bigger hair curls she dons while making dinner, Pfeiffer channels her previous performance in Married to the Mob as if it were yesterday. But she also shows her dramatic chops near film's end when she grabs a kitchen knife to defend her husband against the hit squad.
Agron and D'Leo are hilarious as mob kids who are ready to follow in dad's shoes, but they can also flip the dramatic switch when needed. If you loved the surly Jones in Captain America, you'll find him happily dour here as well. Shockingly, this is the first time that he and De Niro have been in a film together, but their chemistry would make you think otherwise. All the pieces are here and while Besson doesn't have to do much, there's an unevenness to things that's hard to place. Maybe it's the constant switching between the comedy and violence, or the all-too-serious ending in which even the family dog gets injured. Besson and Co-Writer Michael Caleo should have penned more of a slapstick mob hit instead of the unnecessary bloodbath we're given. It's not that the path they took was terrible, it just doesn't match the rest of the film. Whether moviegoers can look past that error is anyone's guess, but there's still plenty to like here. The Manzonis are the most dangerous family around, and Besson lets their terror run nearly free to our delight.
The Family won't win my award for best comedy of 2013, but it's right up there. With enough mob violence and comedy to fill a pasta dish, De Niro and company deliver the goods, even if the third act gets way too dark for our tastes. Even if the idea of severed fingers and random violence isn't your glass of red table wine, look the other way: The Family is worth your time. It's rated R for violence, language and brief sexuality and has a runtime of 110 minutes.
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