If you like your comedies really dark, “The Family” is just your ticket. Starring Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer and featuring Tommy Lee Jones in support, the movie is by turns funny and violent, though rather more the latter than the former. The shootings, stabbings, explosions, and strangling, along with copious (often comic!) droppings of the F-bomb richly earn its “R” rating. Director Luc Besson, best-known for his action flicks like “Taken,” tries his hand at farce, with mixed results.
At the opening, an Italian-American family is slaughtered by a mob hit man — by mistake. Cut to another Italian-American family jammed into a car traveling through Normandy, the kids complaining about the smelly dog in the back, Dad and Mom telling them they’re almost there. The two scenes pretty much sum up the disjunctions in the whole movie: the second family, so apparently bourgeois, are on the lam. The father, Giovanni Manzoni (DeNiro), is a snitch, an ex-Mafioso who has sold out his friends and is now in the FBI’s protection program. Wife Maggie (Pfeiffer) and the kids, 17-year-old Belle (Dianna Agron), and 14-year-old Warren (John D’Leo), are tired of moving every ninety days or so, even though not doing so puts their lives at risk.
Installed in an old house overseen by Special Agent Robert Stansfield (Jones) and two others, the family settles in fairly quickly. However, you can take a goodfella outta Brooklyn, but you can’t take the Brooklyn outta him — or his wife and kids. Maggie takes offense at a local grocery owner’s anti-American remarks and blows up his store. Dianne thwarts the advances of a high-school lout by whacking him senseless with his tennis racket and stealing his car. Warren responds to a beating in school by giving the beaters their own bashing.
In short, we can see why the beleaguered Agent Stansfield has about run out of patience with the “Blake” family after six years of shuffling them about the world. Giovanni/Fred’s responds to a plumber’s insolent demands by beating him with a baseball bat; he threatens the mayor when his water runs brown from the tap; to fix the problem, he finally goes after the source by tying him to the back of his car and dragging him down the road.
Amidst the mayhem, writer/director Besson inserts some surprising comic moments and establishes some engaging relationships, especially among Gio, Maggie, and their government minders. I also liked young D’Leo as a mobster in the making, cutting in on the illicit cigarette trade in his school, demanding a lawyer when the school authorities confront him. These moments punctuate the movie’s somewhat sloppy middle half, but they don’t prepare for the abrupt shift in tone at the end, when Besson reverts to the action movie standbys, blood and bullets.
Mixing mirth and mayhem has never been easy, demanding a delicate directorial touch that eludes Besson for too much of the film’s nearly two hours. “The Family” has a happy ending, of sorts, but no real resolution, letting us down rather than giving us hope. But fans of DeNiro and, especially, Pfeiffer will be pleased to see them back in roles of some complexity — the mob family with middle-class values. Their performances make this an enjoyable, if uneven piece of work.