Giovanni Manzoni is a former Mafia boss who has snitched on the mob and now has a 20 million dollar price on his head. He and his family have been placed in a witness protection program that has had them move around the world a few times. Now, Giovanni, with the new name given to him of Fred Blake, his wife Maggie, daughter Belle and son Warren have been moved to Normandy, France. They try to fit in, but old habits die hard and even with protection from the CIA, they soon find themselves about to be tracked down by their former Mafia associates. Hijinks, of course, ensues…
This is the broad premise of The Family, a dark comedy from visionary French director Luc Besson and producer Martin Scorsese. When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I can’t necessarily say that I was thrilled by it as I was expecting it to be an overly broad comedy, but hearing that Besson was directing it made me take notice. Besson has previously directed movies like La Femme Nikita, Leon (know here as The Professional) and The Fifth Element, all big favorites of mine. Still, my expectations were somewhat low for the film, but I was pleasantly surprised by it’s end.
Besson has built his own little world here that uses the flavor of Scorsese’s GoodFellas as it’s source. Manzoni has done some horrible things for the mob, but still considers himself a good man, a good father and all he really wants to do is tell his true story. He starts to do that by writing his own memoirs, much to the dismay of his CIA handler. Besson tells this story with a very relaxed pace allowing us to get to know the Manzonis and how they exist in this little world that’s seems stuck in the heyday of the mob from the 70s. It’s not meant to be taken seriously, though at the same time it’s not an uproarious comedy by any means. This is presented in an almost episodic manner with each member of Manzoni’s family having their individual arcs and yet it’s all still tied to gather in such a way that I thought was satisfying. The pace of the film changes considerably during the final quarter of the film as the Manzonis are discovered by the mob and now have to use their own methods to get away again. I’ve seen some look at this as a film that’s trying to find an identity just because of some of the tonal shifts that happen when telling these stories, but for me, I looked at it all as world-building on Besson’s part and these shifts just seemed to make sense in this little microcosmos.
The biggest strength that the film has though is it’s cast and with high-powered names like Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones, you’d certainly expect some good work. Now I’ll tell you right up front, this isn’t the high-point of any of their careers, but it’s still sold work and their solid work helps add credibility to Besson’s world. When I was first seeing the trailers for this, I thought it was going to be another one of these comedies in which DeNiro does some overly broad mugging for the camera, but it’s not the case at all. Even with his violent past, DeNiro’s Manzoni is actually a measured character that genuinely feels like he’s trying to change his ways, though he has moments where he imagines what he would do to people if he was his old self. He and Pfeiffer have some really good chemistry together that’s well demonstrated in one very nice little romantic scene between the two. While Pfeiffer’s good to watch with her family, she actually has better scenes when she’s with two CIA agents who are constantly watching the family. Here she gets a chance to let her hair down a bit and not constantly be the rock for the family. Tommy Lee Jones plays Robert Stansfield, Manzoni’s handler and this is the type of thing that you’ve seen Jones do again and again, so he’s certainly solid in the part and excels when he has scenes with DeNiro. Now, I liked all of the leads quite a bit, but I was even more impressed by Dianna Agron (from Glee) and John D’Leo who play the Manzoni kids, Belle and Warren respectively. There’s a lot of strength and confidence to both of their performances and at least to me they both hold their own with DeNiro and Pfeiffer and further help build credibility for this as a family unit in this whacked-out little world.
I was really surprised at just how much I enjoyed The Family, though I suspect that I’ll be a bit of a minority when it comes to that. I think we had a total of maybe 8 people in out theatre to see this and midway through, two of them actually walked out. I do get that, they were might’ve been expecting this to be something that had far bigger laughs than what it did or just thought it meandered a little too much in building it’s world, I don’t know. For me though, I appreciated it’s mixture of both the low-key and the over-the-top, it’s salute by Luc Besson to American Gangster films (in particular Scorsese’s GoodFellas) and it’s rock-solid cast and certainly thought it was more than a good diversion.