In most mob films it’s evident philosophy that the gangsters try to maintain some distance between family life and business. This is not so with the Manzoni’s, they are a mob, and they all feed off each other’s mishaps.
It’s refreshing to see Robert de Niro at home in playing Giovanni Manzoni (a great gangster name, by the way) as he blunders around, in contradiction of the witness protection restraining orders in place on the family, condemning trivial enemies to savage beatings with various tools (a sledgehammer and baseball bat, to name a few). It’s a reminder of why we thought of him as so great in the first place: De Niro is capable of honest warmth and love for his family whilst, at the same time, holding at bay his psychopathic tendencies which we’re always subliminally aware of. Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Maggie, the wife, gets to toy with a role she has so perfectly executed in the past (Scarface, Married to the Mob) after a recovery of working sparingly for over a decade. Not to mention that she still looks amazing and manages to pull of a likable character, even though she has committed so many sins that even the priest is shocked and henceforth refuses her presence at the church. It’s a wonderful mix.
Another veteran in the mix is Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Stansfield, the main man assigned to overlooking the Manzoni’s case. Jones is his usual deadpan perfect self and has a few moments of invaluable countenance appearing next to De Niro. Stansfield is indeed given a hard time trying to keep the Manzoni’s at bay!
Luc Besson approaches the subject in a refreshing, witty and light nature. Despite mixed reviews, The Family is no different from Besson’s entertaining and chic approach, held across the board of his filmography, from Nikita to The Lady. He is not afraid of big, flashy action sequences, when the story demands it, but when he takes this direction he does so with a pleasant dose of over-the-top humour and a flair comparable to Tarantino. Although in this film, not meant to be seen entirely as a farce comedy, Besson doesn’t shy away from various in-jokes and occasional moments of sporadic tongue-in-check moments; moments I actually laughed at.
Giovanni’s previous life is brought to attention when we see snippets of a previous mobster gang stewing in a rather luxurious prison cell – a refrigerator, music, and jail guards acting as servants? No doubt, Giovanni ratted out this gang, hence his current position under a witness protection plan in Normandy, France, and the gang being obsessed to find the Manzoni’s and literally blow them off the face of the Earth.
The way in which the Manzoni’s cover is blown is unequivocally whimsical and daft. It’s one of the many lunatic moments in this movie, others include: Maggie blowing up a French supermarket for not stocking peanut butter, Belle (the daughter) blooding the face of a creep with a tennis racket and Warren (the son) constructing a coalition to deliver vicious payback on bullies. This isn’t great cinema but it’s certainly good fun.
It’s not all fun however, some subplots just don’t work – whether this was intentional, I’m not sure. For example, Belle’s romance with the Math teacher, her despair over the fact he was the love of her life, and the families offbeat relationship with the Feds across the street. Giovanni’s attempts at being a writer also seem a little discharged and despondent.
A fantastic in-joke worth noting is when Giovanni is asked to perform a debate on an American classic at the local film society. Ironically the film that ended up screening was Scorsese’s Goodfellas – Giovanni’s typecasting on the film is a gigantic triumph with the residents who all stand up in astonishing applause.
To sum up, The Family is a deliberately eccentric, chirpy, violent and hit or miss film with just enough moments of inspiration to permit a recommendation. Be prepared for weird, different, but good.