DIR:Luc Besson • WRI: Luc Besson, Michael Caleo • PRO: Luc Besson, Ryan Kavanaugh, Virginie Silla • DOP: Thierry Arbogast• ED: Julien Rey • DES: Hugues Tissandier MUS: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine • CAST: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo
The Family is the story of Fred (Robert De Niro), a former big-cheese in the New York mob, now turned state’s witness. We pick up just after Fred and his family have been forced to relocate yet again after blowing their cover because despite being hunted by mob hitmen, Fred and company just can’t get a handle on civilian living after so many years of living the idealised life of what cinema has taught us a mobster’s existence looks like. With the mob closing in and their handler (Tommy Lee Jones) telling them this is their last chance (as it must always be), can they finally learn to settle in or is a violent showdown with Fred’s former buddies in the mob looming on the horizon? Well, it’s a Luc Besson film so take a wild guess.
The Family seems on paper like one of those great ideas that will almost inevitably be undone by the sanitisation that comes from being such a mainstream production. So it’s surprising then that this isn’t in fact where the film falls down. Coming from Luc Besson the film has no qualms about violence, language and an instance of truly dark (and uncomfortably out of place) implied sexual abuse. The problem is that all of this never amounts to being more than token; token violence, token swearing and a token action-climax. With the freedom they were clearly afforded, this film should be over-the-top in its violence (especially given that it’s being marketed as ‘From the Producer of Taken’) but lacks any ambition. The big action set-piece which the plot has been clearly building toward is disappointingly perfunctory. Just at the point where it seems to be getting into the rhythm of a big, chaotic action scene, where everyone is in place and the titular family should join together for the final push, it’s over.
This lack of interest in its own action centrepiece would seem to indicate the film is more preoccupied with the actual family dynamic and the comedy which makes up the backbone of the screenplay. Sadly, these often strong scenes of the family’s interactions with one another are undone by the film’s constant need to cut away and remind us of the larger plot involving the hitmen and thus sacrificing where its strength lies in order to set up and build toward its damp squib of a finale. This naturally makes for a frustratingly unfocused viewing experience. This isn’t helped by the non-hitmen portion of the plot involving the family being itself an attempt to combine four separate films in such a truncated fashion that each ultimately feels unnecessary. The most poorly executed of these being the daughter, Belle’s (Dianna Argon) story.
Her character is a shallow, almost self-conscious attempt to create a stock ‘strong female character’ (complete with a ‘respect women’ speech delivered practically at the camera) while simultaneously embodying anachronistically old-fashioned values about sex, virginity and love. This leads to a truly strange scene of her threatening to throw herself from a church tower while wearing a white dress in the name of true love. A more cynically minded viewer might even say that this second half of her personality only exists as a lazy contrivance to get her to that church tower at that exact moment so that she can conveniently see the hitmen arriving.
It is a pity that the hitmen plot ends up dominating so much screen time as the performances across the board are a delight to watch. Despite the bizarre writing of her character, Argon remains convincing in her portrayal especially in her interactions with De Niro and Pfeiffer. Indeed, given that both of the young actors playing the kids are performing opposite two industry giants it is truly impressive how naturalistic and believable the overall family dynamic feels. De Niro, who has been phoning it in a lot in recent years, is refreshingly animated here. Even Tommy Lee Jones *almost* displays an emotion at one point.
Pfeiffer is the standout though. Even if her Boston accent occasionally drops in and out her chemistry with De Niro is undeniable as their relationship feels genuinely lived-in. Additionally, her interactions with the kids feel effortless and funny and when the appropriate moments arise, she exudes a quiet, threatening intensity befitting of her status as a matriarchal, gangster’s wife. She may not deadpan a ‘meow’ before she does it this time but watching Pfeiffer calmly blow up a store is still as much fun to watch as it was in the nineties.
There is a very enjoyable film to be found in The Family, just nowhere near enough of it. With its great performances, occasionally smart writing and glimpses of inventive or entertaining violence it’s certainly a very watchable movie. However, the film could really have been elevated by taking its jokes, its violence and its action just that bit further instead of playing it as relatively safe as it did. It’s also an added pity that the soundtrack is so good; its song choice blending an eclectic mix of genres and eras only to use them (for the most part) in quite safe scenes. The only moment where the film does decide to take a bit of a risk (a scene involving Goodfellas) is borderline fourth wall-breaking and almost irredeemable in its self-indulgence. If only more of the film had been so self-indulgent in other aspects, such as its violence or humour, that didn’t involve ego-massaging its own Executive Producer.
15A (See IFCO for details)
The Family is released on 22nd November 2013