Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Family Matters

And just like that, we go from one of the year's best movies to one that is... not quite so close to that pedestal. Based on Tonino Benacquista's mobster novel 'Malavita', The Family is the first movie from Frenchman Luc Besson to get a wide release in the States since 2006's Arthur and the Invisibles. Despite gaining fame in the director's chair for such fare as Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element, Besson is nowadays better known as a producer, and his tutelage has helped develop many films we still love today, including the Transporter series, Taken and more recently Colombiana and Lockout. Producing would seem to be his strength, but every so often he steps back into the director's chair when it suits him, this time to tackle the violent comedy that has often been his staple.

In this case, the story of The Family is based on the duality of the title. On one side is the family you raise; father, mother, children, the family pet. This is the family of blood ties, the ones you love unconditionally. The other "family" is the mob; ruthless, bloodthirsty and loyal to one another and the "don", the father of the gang. It's these two families Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) is forced to choose between, and his snitching on the mafia has forced his remaining family - wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and children Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D'Leo) - deep into hiding with the witness protection program. Under the watchful and humorless eye of FBI agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), the Manzoni's attempt to carve out a new life in their new Normandy home. But old habits are hard to break, though their issues with authority may be their smallest concerns if Giovanni's former family were ever to find out where they were hiding.
Man, De Niro is not young anymore.
The immediate problem I see when The Family gets going is an utter lack of focus. Yes, the main plot is about the mob locating and trying to murder the Manzonis (thanks to an series of impossibly contrived circumstances), but in truth only about twenty minutes of the nearly two-hour flick even deals with this thread, and poorly at that. Instead most of the movie is split between each character's side story. Giovanni tries to face and justify his criminal past by writing his tell-all memoirs, while also tracking down why the water coming out of his pipes is brown. Maggie struggles to adapt to her new surroundings and the unwelcoming personalities of rural France. Belle crushes on a college student and fights off unwanted advances, while Warren turns his new school into his own little mafia training ground. Each character has plenty to do, although it matters little; this is a group of antisocial, hyper-violent malcontents, and the fact that they are the heroes of the tale can't help but feel a little bit wrong. For instance, while it's great to see Agron's character take down a group of boys who were going to try and have their way with her, you can't help but enjoy. But when she has the exact same reaction to a girl who steals her pencil case, you get the feeling that maybe it's not such a good idea to root for these people after all.
This is generally the first sign that your family might be insane.
At least they're admirably acted... well, most of them in any case. De Niro appears to be having a grand old time, especially since the film both lampoons and pays homage to the mobster flicks that made him a household name (in one particularly meta scene, he enjoys a viewing with some associates of Martin Scorcese's Goodfellas), and that energy translates into his performance, which is a step above his usual mobster routine. Jones meanwhile puts in his usual "Agent K" effort, resisting the urge to smile and humanize himself for the sake of levity. For those in the audience who like him, it'll be like Christmas in the Fall. For those who are not Jones' fans, The Family will be another example of his supposed mediocrity. Meanwhile, the film handily belongs to the ladies. Pfeiffer resumes her career resurgence by proving that she is willing and able to go hand-in-hand with De Niro's madness, while the aforementioned Agron is delightfully devilish as a daughter who is more alike to her parents than she would like to admit. I know I put down her role a little bit in the last paragraph, but I would like to clarify: any problems I have with the characters in this movie are not the result of the acting, but a lousy script - co-written by Besson and Michael Caleo - that the actors have to do their best to overcome. Most of them - D'Leo's cliched mob son notwithstanding - manage to do just that, although the clear winners here are definitely Pfeiffer and Agron.
She just can't get out of high school though.
When the time the movie comes to a jarring halt (thanks to an unarguably terrible ending), you can't help but feel that Besson might have benefited from staying out of the director's chair for this one. Plot threads are left wholly unexplored or incomplete, characters take paths completely outside their established behaviors, and the tonal changes of The Family so quickly shudder between violent comedy and serious thriller that it's clear there was an identity crisis on set. With gag scenes quickly giving way to vindictive cruelty, one has to believe that Besson's lack of polish here was an unintentional one, and that The Family fails to make its mark thanks to rustiness and not merely ineptitude. There are sparks of wit and charm scattered throughout the film, enough to suggest that this could even have been a GOOD film in someone else's hands. Sadly, Besson did not play to his strengths as a producer, and The Family suffers from his neglect.
"Forgive me, Lord, for I am about to sin."

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