Movie Review: The Family - Brian Overland

Movie Review: The Family

27 September 2013, Comments: 0

the family 1In director Luc Besson's new film, The Family, the message is: Don't mess with Robert De Niro… or anyone he's related to.

Actually, there is a bit more to it than that. De Niro scored a triumph playing Jimmy Conway in 1990's Goodfellas, one of the great crime movies of all time. The only problem is that he's tended to be cast in the same role ever since: the smart, fast-talking wise guy with a mild Brooklyn accent. He can do so much more as an actor, but he's tended to fall into that niche for over two decades now.

Part of the fun of The Family is that it deliberately plays to this type casting and brings it full circle. As a middle-aged gangster in the witness protection program, De Niro's character and his family are sent to live in a small town in the north of France. (A surprise to me: I didn't know that the witness protection program could cross international borders.) Against the wishes of his FBI handler (a lackadaisical Tommy Lee Jones), he's invited to a local French film society to discuss an American film. That film turns out to be Goodfellas.

At first this is jarring. We hear some of the Goodfellas soundtrack. Are we going to see De Niro's characters from both movies side by side? It's as if Clint Eastwood played a character invited to a showing of Dirty Harry, or Clark Gable played a northerner invited to a showing of Gone with the Wind. Initially this takes us completely out of the movie, but the device ultimately works. The conceit is that the characters in Goodfellas are based on the character De Niro plays in The Family, and when he's done reminiscing about his youth, the French moviegoers give this American a standing ovation.

the family 2And that's satisfying, in turn, because the movie is ultimately about culture shock and American-French relations. To a European, what's more American than a mob family? Naturally, we get the stereotype of the rude Frenchmen in the beginning… a situation that moves the mobster's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) to blow up a small grocery store. Her appearance here recalls Married to the Mob. But in that film she was an innocent victim; here she's as tough as her husband. Despite being an American, she fits into the small-town French setting, having aged beautifully into a look that almost recalls Catherine Deneuve at times.

It helps that the film was shot in France and uses a good many French actors (and has a French director, Besson). None of the French characters get much development, but they're more real than if played by Americans with atrocious accents.

The family is rounded out by a son and daughter (John D'Leo and Diana Agron) who seem like typical American teenagers… except that you'd never want to cross them. Agron is almost unearthly beautiful; this is to make us all the more shocked, I suppose, when she beats the crap out of fellow students who treat her badly. D'Leo is a few inches shorter than his onscreen sister. I suppose that the reason for this casting decision is: He doesn't need height or muscle to retaliate against local bullies who (foolishly) try to make his life miserable. He's got street smarts learned from his father.

Of course, if you don't cross them, they're really nice kids. The whole family is like that.

There's perhaps too much violence in this film, upsetting the comic tone it tries to establish. The Family doesn't know whether it wants to be a black comedy or a reprise of Goodfellas. But it's entertaining enough either way.

Grade: B


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