BY VAN ROBERTS
You cannot really appreciate “The Family” (*** OUT OF ****) unless you’ve seen Robert De Niro’s gangster movies. The Oscar winning “Raging Bull” actor mobbed up in “The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight” (1971), “Mean Streets” (1973), “The Godfather, Part II” (1974), “Once Upon A Time in America” (1984), “The Untouchables” (1987), “Goodfellas” (1990), “Heat” (1995), and “Casino” (1995). Later, he spoofed his wise-guy image with the psychological comedies “Analyze This” (1999) and its lackluster 2002 sequel “Analyze That.” Now, De Niro and his “Stardust” co-star Michelle Pfeiffer topline an iconic but ironic epic about a notorious Brooklyn crime family in the Justice Department’s Witness Protection Program. “La Femme Nikita” helmer Luc Besson and “Sopranos” scenarist Mike Caleo have adapted French writer Tonino Benacquista’s novel “Malavita” with closer than usual fidelity to the source material. A synopsis of Benacquista’s book sounds drastically similar to Besson’s movie. Of course, minor differences crop up but few of significance. Appropriately enough, “Goodfellas” director Martin Scorsese received credit as an executive producer on “The Family.” Not surprisingly, Besson has constructed an entire scene around “Goodfellas” as an obvious homage to Scorsese. After all, aside from Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese is one of the Godfathers of Mafia movies. In general, “The Family” celebrates mob pictures. The hitmen dress in black like those traditional Mafia gunsels hulking and skulking through Scorsese’s mob operas. Besson stages the Brooklyn flashbacks of “The Family” with De Niro and his wise-guy cronies in settings reminiscent of those in the crime sagas of Scorsese and Coppola. Happily, the film benefits from this sense of authenticity and atmosphere. You don’t so much watch “The Family” as take a whack at it.
Despite its laudable source material fidelity and its admiration for all things Mafia, “The Family” may alienate audiences with its audacious synthesis of comedy and violence. Rated R for language, violence and brief sexuality, Besson’s film resembles those amoral Euro-trash epics from the 1970s when filmmakers toyed with gritty methods of torture and death. For example, director Tulio Demicheli’s “Ricco the Mean Machine” (1973) with Christopher Mitchum boasts some horrific body disposal methods. In “The Family,” Besson lets your own imagination fill in what good taste prevents him from depicting without landing an NC-17 rating. This is the kind of crime thriller where innocent bystanders die in the line of gunfire. In traditional Hollywood crime melodramas, only integral characters or their minions involved in the main plot ran the risk of death. Besson crosses this line and several of Giovanna’s neighbors suffer the consequences for associating with him.
What makes “The Family” relatively entertaining is it focuses as much on the parents as their children as they struggle to fit into French society. Basically, “The Family” is a fish-out-of-water saga. Fish-out-of-water because the protagonists are strangers in a strange land. The action opens with former Mafia chieftain Giovanna Manzoni (Robert De Niro), wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer of “Married to the Mob”), their 14-year old son Warren (John D’Leo) and 17-year old daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) departing from the French Rivera in the dead of night to drive to Normandy. Giovanna is in the Witness Protection Program, and FBI Agent Robert Stansfield (a curmudgeonly Tommy Lee Jones of “U.S. Marshals”) supervises him. Agents Di Cicco (Jimmy Palumbo of “Beer League”) and Caputo (Domenick Lombardozzi of “S.W.A.T.”), maintain around-the-clock surveillance for Stansfield on Giovanna. After they arrive in Normandy, Giovanna decides to masquerade as a writer. Actually, Giovanna has found a portable Brother typewriter, and he is banging out his memoirs, much to Stansfield’s chagrin. Rarely do Stansfield and Giovanna see eye-to-eye, and the veteran FBI agent has grown weary of moving the mobster-in-hiding around every three months.
Giovanna has been in Witness Protection for about six years, but he behaves as if he were running things for himself. Giovanni’s cavalier attitude creates no end of problems for the long-suffering Stanfield. De Niro and Tommy Lee have about four scenes together where they argue with each other through grimaces. Meanwhile, Maggie blows up a market after the employees ridicule her. She is especially upset because nobody in France sells peanut butter. Later, she discovers the drinking water is brown and insists Giovanna resolve the issue. Simultaneously, Warren and Belle find themselves attending a French high school. Belle defends her honor against lusty lads with pimples, while Warren succumbs to a black & blue beating at the hands of the school bullies. Like most of the violence, everything is larger-than-life, so Warren gets the snot beaten out of him. Eventually, everybody pays back everybody who requires pay-back, but in terms of flesh and blood. If this weren’t enough, the Mafia figure that Giovanna snitched on, Don Luchese (Stan Carp of “The Sopranos”), wants him dead and has assassins scouring Europe for him. “The Family” never runs out of plot.
Although “The Family” purports to be funny, Besson doesn’t direct it like a laugh-out-loud comedy. Besson’s shoot’em up shares little in common with the Steve Martin comedy “My Blue Heaven.” The protagonists in “The Family” walk on the wild side, and they do nothing by halves. Most comedies would refrain from the brutal violence that Giovanna and his family resort to without a qualm of conscience. When a smart-aleck plumber disrespects Giovanna, the former mafia chieftain cites Al Capone and brandishes a Louisville slugger. Giovanna’s daughter Belle wields a wicked tennis racquet when a quartet of teens invites her to a picnic. Giovanna’s torture scenes look downright dreadful. Besson takes into consideration our reaction. Some of the violence that he stages is imaginary. Giovanna imagines what it would be like to shove a glowing barbecue coal down an obnoxious man’s throat at a cookout. The performances in “The Family” are excellent, but Michelle Pfeiffer really stands out. Altogether, “The Family” is an immoral but hilarious criminal comedy of errors where the good guys—De Niro and his family—are more villainous than heroic, but the villainy of their enemies far overshadows their own villainy.