Friday, September 13, 2013

The Family: Dysfunction reigns

The Family (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for violence, considerable profanity and brief drug use

By Derrick Bang

Comedy is hard. Dark comedy is much harder.

Giovanni (Robert De Niro) and Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer, back to ccamera) naturally wish
to know how their children fared, during their first day at a new French school. Warren
(John D'Leo) and Belle (Dianna Agron) downplay their activities, unwilling to admit that
their larcenous instincts — a family quality — will allow them to own the school by the
end of the week.
In theory, this film is the droll saga of a Mafia family trying to maintain the low profile demanded of the Witness Protection Program, while too easily sliding into former bad (i.e. violent) habits, much to the ongoing consternation of their FBI handler. That’s a premise with considerable comedic potential, particularly when the handler is played by Tommy Lee Jones at his morose, long-suffering best.

And things would have been fine, had our protagonists confined their lethal behavior to the various goombahs trying to find and whack them, and if said goombahs had limited their nasty tendencies toward each other.

But far too many innocent bystanders get killed along the way, sometimes quite unpleasantly. It’s rather hard to chuckle when another inquisitive neighbor gets shot between the eyes. That simply isn’t funny, and it, ah, kills the mood. Repeatedly.

The trouble is, veteran French action director Luc Besson doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie to make this time; his script — co-written with Michael Caleo, from Tonino Benacquista’s comedic novel Malavita — keeps sliding back and forth between the grim “straight” drama of La Femme Nikita or The Professional, and the far lighter, satiric tone of The Fifth Element. These styles are mutually incompatible, and the result is rather a mess.

Caleo, I note, co-wrote one episode of TV’s The Sopranos with that show’s creator, David Chase. That may have been the serio-comic mood Besson hoped to achieve, since Chase masterfully blended sarcastic humor with heinous violence in his groundbreaking show. And, at times, Besson and Caleo almost get there ... but then they spoil it with another dollop of brutal behavior.

Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) and his family have spent years on the run, at various locations in the States and now France, due to the persistence of mob bosses infuriated by his having ratted them out. Giovanni’s wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), has grown accustomed to packing and unpacking; teenagers Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo) have resigned themselves to the constant uprooting faced by military kids.

Now, newly ensconced in a sleepy French village in the Normandy countryside, saddled with the fresh identity of “Fred Blake,” Giovanni attempts, once again, to blend. On impulse, he greets neighbors by claiming to be a writer of history; trouble is, the locals know far more about his fabricated topic — the D-Day invasion — than he does.

FBI handler Robert Stansfield (Jones) isn’t amused; that’s precisely the sort of sloppy thinking that could get “Fred” exposed as ... well, as somebody other than who he claims to be.

Maggie attempts to maneuver through a nearby market with her limited French, earning nothing but snooty contempt from a shopkeeper who sneers at her desire for peanut butter, and then disses all “arrogant Americans” to the general agreement of a few locals. With a grim smile that Pfeiffer delivers with elegant grace, Maggie arranges for a small propane canister to come into contact with lighter fluid and a match, and casually exits the establishment before its contents erupt through the plate glass windows.

Now, that’s funny, particularly since Besson clearly plays on the long-established American belief that the French are arrogant snots. No flying limbs, just mangled groceries. We can imagine the store’s inhabitants somehow escaped with minor injury.

Elsewhere, Belle and Warren warily navigate their first day at this new school with the precision of a veteran “dirty tricks” squad. Initially feigning innocence (Belle) and vulnerability (Warren) in order to suss out the various social cliques and pecking orders, within days they’re clandestinely calling the shots.

This, too, is wonderfully amusing, particularly when Belle unexpectedly goes postal on a gaggle of hormonally charged boys who imagined she would be easy pickings. Warren, as well, methodically demonstrates “fixer” skills that evoke pleasant memories of master larcenists in caper thrillers such as Ocean’s Eleven. D’Leo evokes the sort of clinical maturity that we’d expect from a kid forced to grow up quickly.

Meanwhile, Giovanni — ah, no, Fred — finds his limited (very limited) patience tried by a local plumber who arrives late and then cheerfully tries to take advantage of the situation, assuming that all Americans are loaded with money and therefore ripe for the plucking.

Sounds perfect, right? And it would be, except that, back in the States, a mob assassin (Jon Freda, appropriately scary as Rocco) is following leads and murdering likely families — husband, wife, teenage son and daughter — in the hope they might be the Manzoni clan. Identification is checked by sending severed fingers to the local Mafia don, who has lost none of his juice, despite being in a federal prison.

Watching Rocco murder children — more than once — rather destroys the attempt at light-heartedness, even if the executions are fairly bloodless and (mostly) take place off-camera. It soon becomes clear that, with the possible exception of our main characters, nobody else is likely to survive the carnage that we can predict will consume the third act.

Rest assured — this being a Luc Besson movie — a bazooka will be involved.

The jarring tonal shift notwithstanding, Besson and Caleo also squander some of their script’s can’t-miss plot elements. The dynamic between De Niro and Jones is rich with potential, the wheedling, easily irritated Giovanni constantly getting under Stansfield’s last nerve. But despite his co-star billing, Jones isn’t in much of this film; it looks as though he spent perhaps two days on the set, and did a few quick scenes before beetling back to some other project.

Heck, the family dog gets more screen time than Jones. Great part for a canine, I might add.

Giovanni’s decision to write his memoirs — on a lovingly preserved manual typewriter — is another plot element that doesn’t really accomplish anything, except perhaps to fill time as De Niro carefully places paper in roller and attacks the keyboard with two-fingered precision. Granted, Giovanni needs something with which to fill his time, and the possibility of dire revelations eventually sparks a droll exchange with Stansfield ... but the whole writing thing just sorta drifts off.

A few sidebar developments are handled more successfully. Maggie has developed a fondness for the two FBI “babysitters” — Caputo (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Di Cicco (Jimmy Palumbo) — who’ve apparently followed the family from one location to the next. Their delight over Maggie’s authentic Italian cooking becomes a droll running gag.

Agron, well recognized as Quinn Fabray on television’s Glee, is allowed the greatest character range; aside from her amusing skills as a schoolyard enforcer, Belle also succumbs to every girl’s fantasy when living in France: to fall in love. Her target: a hunky substitute math teacher. Agron navigates her character’s two extremes with panache; it’s fun to watch Belle be swoony one moment, and then, in the next, beat on a loutish boy with a tennis racket.

She also shares a touching moment with De Niro, when Giovanni laments the mess that he has made of his life, and the hardship his family has endured as a result; Belle, firmly devoted to her father, insists that he is, nonetheless, the best dad in the world. Given the circumstances, that’s a tricky sentiment to sell, but Agron nails it.

Pfeiffer is equally memorable, her Maggie spitting fire with every spoken word ... or, alternatively, taking solace in a doobie while wondering, with the stricken concern of an exhausted mother tiger, just what is to become of them. Unlike many of the other actors in this uneasy farce, Pfeiffer knows precisely how to play each scene, having navigated similar waters for director Jonathan Demme back in 1988, with Married to the Mob.

De Niro, happily, does not overact, as he has done too frequently in recent years. He treats this role fairly seriously, which adds comic weight to the moments when poor Giovanni loses his temper yet again.

The film certainly looks good; production designer Hugues Tissandier makes the most of the sleepy village setting, and the gated little chalet in which our family has been sheltered. Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography is similarly warm and inviting. Besson and editor Julien Rey orchestrate these events fairly calmly, eschewing rat-a-tat pacing in favor of longer, slower scenes that reflect the drowsy countryside setting, while also allowing the cast some richer character moments. (That said, this film feels a bit too slow, at 110 minutes.)

Evgueni and Sacha Galperine deliver a robust score that lends comic punch to the story’s lighter moments.

Despite its many enjoyable elements, though, The Family can’t shake the mean-spirited interludes that completely overwhelm it. Even the climax leaves us with a bitter taste, likely not the mood Besson intended us to have, upon departing the theater.

Too bad, because this could — should — have been much better.

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