Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Family

The Family bears superficial resemblance to a movie that Robert DeNiro might have done in the wake of Analyze This, some sort of broad fish-out-of-water comedy about mobsters in Europe in which DeNiro turns up the smile and cashes a big check. All of the stock elements look to be in place; there’s a wife with her own impulse control issues, two children who can’t stay out of trouble, and a grumpy Federal agent charged with keeping DeNiro’s family safe. Yet The Family, directed and co-written by Luc Besson, has something more ambitious on its mind and at moments it actually surprises. The best reason to see The Family though is not Robert DeNiro, whose part if anything is underwritten, but for the performance of Michelle Pfeiffer as a wife by turns frustrated, protective, and violent.

Giovanni Manzoni (DeNiro) is a New York Mafia figure who, for reasons unspecified, has betrayed his crime family and spent years on the run under the cover of the Witness Protection program. Giovanni and the other Manzonis have a problem though, because they can’t stop being sociopaths no matter how many new identities they get. The best choice Besson and co-writer Michael Caleo made was to not insist on the family’s essential likability. Wife Maggie (Pfeiffer) has a habit of pouring lighter fluid on situations she doesn’t like while daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John d’Leo) have each inherited different sides of their father’s personality. The Manzonis’ behavior makes them well-traveled members of the witness protection program, and as The Family opens Giovanni and his brood are settling in to a small French village under the weary protection of Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones). There’s a loose plot about a jailed Don (Stan Carp) organizing a hunt for Giovanni, but most of The Family is about each of the Manzonis trying to find a home. DeNiro is saddled with a subplot about wanting to write a memoir, so Giovanni must channel his sadistic urges into a campaign to clean up the local water, but Pfeiffer gets to play some conflict about her husband’s choices and a wicked mean streak. It’s a performance that deserves a better thought out movie and one that recalls Married to the Mob and Pfeiffer’s peak years in the ’80s and ‘90s.

The past does catch up with the Manzonis of course, and it’s in the transitions between comedy and violence that The Family falters. It’s as if Besson thought the movie needed a box to fit into, but the closing shootout (in which both Belle and Warren reveal they can handle a weapon) feels perfunctory. Belle’s tennis racket beating of an unwelcome suitor is another violent and atonal element; the feminist speech that follows doesn’t jive with the rest of the movie in which Belle pursues a math teacher as a way out of her peripatetic existence. Why couldn’t things stay dark and weird? A scene where Giovanni is asked to talk to the local film society about Goodfellas could have been either hysterical or the moment where Giovanni meets himself, but Besson uses it merely as a plot device. The Family ends where it began. I enjoyed it mostly for Pfeiffer and for the vigorous way that Agron attacks her character’s contradictions, but a movie less anxious to please would have been both something new and something needed.

1 comment:

Paul S said...

As much as I admire Michelle Pfeiffer I’ve held off from watching “The Family” but after reading your praise for her performance I think I might pick it up on DVD.
It does sadden me more than a little to see the decline of De Niro and Pfeiffer’s fortunes over recent years. I’ve grown up watching Michelle and even though we’ve both got older, she remains transcendent. Somehow some of her recent roles have felt like someone’s put a lampshade on the brightest light in the room.