In making the Mafia comedy, “The Family,” Luc Besson and Martin Scorsese seem to have set out to have some fun with their more typical hard-boiled gangster fare. Besson directed and co-wrote the screenplay and Scorsese acted as executive producer, and it’s easy to see references to “The Professional” and “Goodfellas.” Actually, “Goodfellas” is mentioned in an amusing scene where Robert De Niro’s gangster-in-hiding in a village in Normandy is invited to address the local film club on Vincente Minnelli’s “Some Came Running.” But the wrong film arrives, and he has to talk on “Goodfellas”instead. Needless to say, he relishes the task.
De Niro plays an aging version of characters he created in “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” This time he is Giovanni Manzoni, an ex-Mafioso who decided to spill the beans on all his criminal connections. The FBI has put him and his family in a witness protection program and sent them to France. There they are ordered to lead a quiet life and not call attention to themselves. But they can’t quite leave their violent ways behind them. Giovanni, now known as Fred Blake, is not used to arguing politely with unaccommodating French plumbers and businessmen. The same is true of his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), teenage daughter Belle (Diana Agron) and son Warren (John D’Leo).
The best scene aside from the “Goodfellas” dissertation is a shopping expedition that ends with Maggie blowing up the store in response to the arrogance of the snooty French merchants. Belle and Warren prove to be just as deadly to their antagonists at their new school. While the family is adjusting uneasily to their new home, imprisoned gangsters back home are trying to locate the family and wipe them out.
The violence is excessive for a film that’s essentially conceived as a comedy, and although the final gun battle between the family and their enemies is well executed, it seems to come from a different, far more conventional movie. De Niro has played straight gangster roles and comic gangster roles , so this part isn’t exactly a stretch, and at times his weariness is visible.
But he has fun in scenes where Giovanni decides that he has a new career as a writer. He wants to write his memoirs. The best reason to see the film is to catch Pfeiffer in a rare leading role. She looks great, and although her Brooklyn accent occasionally vanishes, she gives a stylish and funny performance reminiscent of her fine work in “Married to the Mob” 25 years ago. Agron, best known as the head cheerleader on “Glee,” matches up well with Pfeiffer and savors a rare opportunity to play a bad girl. D’Leo also demonstrates commendable comic chops as the kid brother. One scene in which he discusses how many nuances Dad can give the F-word is hilarious.
Tommy Lee Jones brings his considerable presence to the role of the FBI agent watching over the family. Besson does a good job capturing the ambience of a nondescript French village that is a long way from the picturesque towns featured in travel guides. The fall movie season has begun so the next few weeks will bring some movies worth seeing. Next week I will let you know if “Prisoners” is worth seeing. I hope it is!