Film Review: The Family

The Blake family can’t seem to let go of past habits in this hybrid comedy-gangster flick.

The Family  | C+

Robert De Niro, once the big screen’s most intense actor, has spent so long playing an exaggerated riff of his former ferocity that now he’s sort of a shadow of a takeoff inside a parody. After a decade-plus of spoofing his tough guy persona, these days the mere sight of De Niro is shorthand that winking, meta-textual yuks are about to ensue.

That sensation worsens when you learn that, this time around, old Bobby D is playing a vicious Brooklyn mobster turned neutered family man — currently forced into a state of domestic semi-tranquility by the federal Witness Protection Program.

Posing under the pseudonym Fred Blake, the formerly feared Giovanni Manzoni has turned snitch and has been relocated with his brood to an especially sleepy little backwater town in Normandy after repeatedly blowing their cover during the last few stops.

The Blake family is frequently on the move because the clan is a bunch of psycho hotheads, prone to outbursts at the smallest slight. Case in point: Relatively reasonable wife Maggie (Michelle Pffier) responds in a fit of pique when the corner grocer haughtily sniffs at her request for peanut butter; she promptly blows the shop up with a propane tank. Not a great way to endear yourself to the locals.

The kids, meanwhile, are busily analyzing their new high school classmates for signs of weakness. Son Warren (John D’Leo), is a junior con artist who quickly has the power structure of the schoolyard mapped out like an FBI profiler, while blond bombshell daughter Belle (Glee star Diana Agron), is swiftly — and forcibly — re-educating all the drooling young garçons in the proper way to treat a lady. All of this is enough to make the family’s government handler Stan (an amusingly haggard Tommy Lee Jones) start to droop like a basset hound in high gravity.

The vainglorious Fred begins to take his cover identity as a celebrated novelist a bit too seriously, and accepts an invite to speak at the local film society’s showing of an American classic. (You only get one guess what that particular gangster picture turns out to be).

Fred just can’t help himself; neither can French director Luc Besson, who loves to cram comedy and violence together with a blatant disregard for tone. This is especially true in the anarchic third act, when a cartoonish crew of hit men finally arrives in town and the resulting bloodbath interrupts the giggles.

There is some charm in the cross-cultural disconnect happening here and, as clichéd as the setup is, there is a flavor of unpredictability in the presentation. Besson has enjoyed a string of hits as a producer lately (Taken, The Transporter series), though he rarely sits in the director’s chair anymore; it’s hard to imagine what lured him to this generic script.

Still, Besson has a visual style to burn and a terrifically fluid touch with action, if not as much with comedy. The marvelous cast works awfully hard to fill in the gaps, but this muddled, chaotic romp is intent on demolishing everything in its path.

The Family, in theaters now, is rated R and has a run time of 150 minutes.