All in "The Family:" Mob life satisfies as dark comedy

In most mob movies, the gangsters try to maintain some distance between business and family life. Remember Michael Corleone telling Kay she could ask him about his business, just this one time?

Oh sure, in most mafia films the wife might know the true nature of her husband's dealings, and the children (or at least the sons) will often have the opportunity to join the family business – but only after they've reached a certain age. Not so with Giovanni Manzoni, his wife and children in Luc Besson's The Family.

Giovanni (Robert De Niro) is a second-generation mobster turned informant, now in the Witness Protection Program, but his wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), his 17-year-old daughter, Belle, and his 14-year-old son, Warren, share Giovanni's hair-trigger temper and his penchant for solving just about any dilemma with brutal violence.

They're a mob unto themselves.

This is why the Manzonis have to pick up every few months. They're supposed to be living a quiet life in France, more than 3,000 miles and multiple name changes removed from their old life in Brooklyn. But when Dad uses a baseball bat and a sledgehammer on a plumber who tries to rip him off, when Mom has a penchant for blowing up supermarkets that don't carry peanut butter, when Belle uses a tennis racket to bloody the face of a would-be creep, when Warren's working the angles at school for profit and bone-crunching revenge – well, you can't stay in one place for long.

Have I mentioned The Family is for the most part a comedy?

This is a deliberately off-kilter, cheerfully violent, hit-and-miss effort with just enough moments of inspiration to warrant a recommendation – especially if you know what you're getting into. There's a lot of pretty sick humor in The Family, and if the sight of severed digits and random psychotic assaults isn't your cup of blood-red wine, keep moving, nothing to see here.

Although we see snippets of Giovanni's previous life in flashbacks, it's never really explained why this ruthless mobster killed most of his associates and ratted out the rest. Suffice to say there's a $20 million bounty on Giovanni's head and an obligatory mob boss who's stewing in a relatively posh jail cell (refrigerator, music, jail guards delivering wine and delicacies) obsessed with finding the Manzonis and wiping them from the face of the Earth. The manner in which the family's cover is blown is downright whimsical for a movie such as this. It's one of several inspired, semi-lunatic moments in The Family

My other favorite story threads: Belle (Glee's Dianna Agron, playing the kind of idealized blonde with a gun you'd find in a Tarantino movie) imagines herself a tragic figure after she's dumped by the man she thought was the love of her life; and Giovanni is asked to be a guest speaker at a cinema club showing a certain American classic. Not since Marlon Brando in The Freshman has there been such a sublime and yet outrageous joke within a joke.

With his Oscar-nominated supporting work in Silver Linings Playbook and his solid performance here, De Niro has regained some of the edge that was eroded to the point of near-toothlessness by all those "Fockers" movies. Here's a reminder of why we thought he was so great in the first place. De Niro's Giovanni seems capable of genuine warmth, and he obviously loves his family – but there's never a moment in the performance when we're not aware this man is just barely keeping his psychopathic tendencies at bay. (And rarely has an actor employed the F-word in so many different ways to express so many different emotions.)

The great Tommy Lee Jones is deadpan perfection as Stansfield, the agent who leads the protection detail for the Manzonis. The look on Stansfield's face as Giovanni explains how he can hate Stansfield more than any person in the world and yet consider him his best friend is priceless. Sopranos alums Dominic Chianese and Vincent Pastore are in their comfort zones playing two of Giovanni's former associates.

Michelle Pfeiffer, who of course knows a thing or two about playing someone married to the mob, looks amazing and somehow manages to create empathy for a character who has committed so many sins she frightens and shocks the priest who hears her confessions.

In the last 20 minutes or so, as the body count piles up and the stakes are raised, The Family sheds most of its comedy aspirations and goes for a stylized, bloody finale. Belle's white dress practically glows in the midnight Normandy streets as she shoots it out with the army of black-clad mobsters trying to wipe out her entire family. It's weird. It's different. It's effective more often than not. 

1 comment

why is De Niro so obsessed with mob life as now he looks out of place playing any other roll