2013 | Luc Besson
After helming a string of successful films such as Nikita, Léon and The Fifth Element, French auteur Luc Besson wrote an even longer string of successful action films like Taken, The Transporter, Unleashed and any and all related sequels. Prior to this year’s Lucy, it had been almost a decade since he directed an internationally successful live-action film, instead devoting most of his time to the animated Arthur and the Invisibles and writing seemingly as many sequels to Taken and The Transporter as possible. The Family is somewhat of an action comedy, however it features very little action and lacks the true oddball humour Besson became known for with The Fifth Element, but the film is still incredibly bizarre.
Robert De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni (aka Frank Blake), a mob boss turned snitch who has just been relocated to Normandy in France with his family. It’s not the first time they’ve been relocated; apparently Gio and his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and their two kids, Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo) are so incapable of staying out of trouble, that FBI agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) has to relocate them every few months. Gio is prone to violent outbursts, including breaking a plumber’s legs with a baseball bat and a sledgehammer for trying to rip him off, Maggie blows up supermarkets for not stocking peanut butter, Dianna takes a tennis racquet to a would-be creep who tries to take advantage of her in a park, and Warren is so good at playing the angles and conducting business that within one day at a new school he has taken over the school’s cigarette market, stolen painkillers from the nurses office for redistribution and plotted violent revenge against some bullies.
Aside from all this, what has really earned the ire of Stansfield is Giovanni’s desire to write his memoirs on an old typewriter in the greenhouse. Stansfield is worried the book will be published and Giovanni will be in even more trouble with his old family, and Stansfield will have to continue spending his days finding safe housing for Gio and his family. All Gio wants to do though, is tell the truth, his way. He doesn’t even care if the book ever sees the light of day, but he maintains he’s had to tone his life story down, because there’s no way anyone could possibly believe the real version of events.
Robert De Niro has the envious ability to seemingly not even be trying, and still be one of the best actors alive today. Giovanni Manzoni would hardly top the list of his best characters – he probably wouldn’t even make such a list, but De Niro can deliver these roles with such ease that the craft is almost like child’s play. The film benefits greatly from the talent of its cast, with Michelle Pfeiffer, who is no stranger to playing a mobster’s wife, incredibly believable and human, despite being shunned from church after what could only have been a terrifying confession. Tommy Lee Jones puts in one of the most deadpan performances of his career, and he and De Niro play off each other so well it’s a shame it didn’t happen in a film of more dramatic stature.
Aside from its cast, the film succeeds with a series of jarring, yet oddly satisfying tonal shifts as it changes from broad humour to graphic violence, to thriller and then back to broad comedy in the blink of an eye. It is the kind of film which seems like it could direct itself, but Besson’s understanding of tone through words and image is the reason why such an odd occurrence actually works incredibly well. Overall the film suffers from a sense of over-familiarity; it is formulaic, broad and isn’t really unique in anything Besson is attempting. It has the look and feel of an average blockbuster, and lacks the finer things about Besson’s better work which make films such as Léon and The Fifth Element so memorable.
It never strays too far into oddball territory, and it never capitalises on its glimpses of brilliance, such as De Niro’s Giovanni sitting down to watch a screening of Goodfellas, in which De Niro also stars. It’s a comfortable film; a film which could suit any demographic (if they don’t mind the occasional use of the word “fuck”) but unfortunately, that’s also it’s biggest downfall. It lacks anything to set it apart from everything else around it. It seems as though Besson was trying so hard to make a film suitable for everyone that he lost sight of the reasons why his others are so memorable. The film isn’t bad by any stretch, and it’s decent enough to warrant seeing, but it’s so immemorable it’s hard to imagine ten years from now anybody remembering the film was even made.