the family2013

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Thriller

Directed by: Luc Besson

Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, Tommy Lee Jones

Getting that balance right between style and substance can be a real killer for so many films. Luc Besson’s disappointing mob comedy neatly side steps the problem by eschewing both. Proving to be a monumental abuse of talent, The Family, barring a few good jokes, is a dull and unpleasant waste of nearly two hours of your life.

Former Mafioso Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) and his family now live in France in the FBI witness protection programme. After snitching on his former friends, he is a wanted man, but one unable to keep an appropriately low profile. As a result, the family find themselves moving around every few months. Arriving in a provincial Normandy town, they are ordered by their FBI protector Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) to assimilate and stay under the radar.

This proves to be a uniquely difficult problem for the Manzoni family, now going by the name Blake. Giovanni, or Fred to his new neighbours, can’t seem to leave his violent ways behind him. A streak of wanton destruction also runs through his family. His wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) is perfectly willing to burn down a supermarket if insulted by the staff, daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), when not seducing teachers, is happy to viciously assault a collection of people, and son Warren (John D’Leo) is a scheming and accomplished high school gangster on the make. With mob hit men closing in on them, they must unite to fight the threat.

Turning up in yet another rubbish film, Robert De Niro truly baffles. If he were just phoning in his performances, it would make more sense, but he’s as charismatically good as ever. Sure, this is not the spellbinding De Niro of his heyday, but who could be with this script. Clearly, the man must just love acting because he keeps turning in engaging performances in otherwise forgettable films.

The rest of the cast also perform admirably, grappling gamely with a script stacked against them from the start. The Blake’s have an odd chemistry as the actors bounce impressively off each other. And Jones gets to play his sardonic and understated character perfected over so many years. With this talented cast and the odd good joke, there are funny moments scattered throughout, but nowhere near enough to take even half a step towards saving this shambles.

What the filmmakers appear to have been aiming for is a knockabout black comedy with moments of brutality and menace, elements of a revenge thriller, and an action finale. Unsurprisingly, this bizarre combination does not hang together well. Instead, we jump from light-hearted banter to humorous assault before straying into teacher/student romance, attempted rape and cold-blooded slaughter.

When it’s not being interminably dull, it’s all rather unpleasant. But stuffed full of unnecessary subplots, and let’s face it, a pretty unnecessary main plot, boredom is the overriding force. It’s nigh on impossible to care as a bunch of cruel and reckless idiots struggle with increasingly implausible situations. Within a matter of days, Warren is the school kingpin, while Belle is launching into a sordid affair with her teacher. Time is also wasted watching Maggie flirt with religion while Giovanni wanders around trying to improve the quality of the local water with a baseball bat.

Besson at least can usually be relied on to inject some energy and style with his frenetic approach to directing. But here, even that fails. Everything is lit with a sickly orange glow resembling a spell at a bad tanning salon, while redundant flashes of Giovanni’s violent day dreams are spread liberally through the first half. There are also too many jerky moments as the camera refocuses in the same shot, disconcertingly drawing the eye. By the time the tedious action showdown occurs, complete with automatic weapons and a rocket launcher, you’ll almost wish they’d finish the job and put us all out of our misery.

Perhaps the worst moment comes in what is an otherwise funny scene. Posing as a war historian, Giovanni is invited to give a talk at the local film society. A mix-up sees them stuck watching Goodfellas instead, much to the delight of the former gangster. It’s an awkward reminder of what some of these people have done before, a reminder of how special a film can be. Then the spell breaks and we’re left with too long a look at what can happen when a film goes wrong.

★★