It’s been well over a decade since Luc Besson’s name carried any weight as a filmmaker. These days you’re more likely to see his name flaunted as a producer or writer of any number of cornball European action flicks. If his latest, The Family, is any indication, you can see why his sway as a director has faded. Here, we have an attempt at mixing French cinema’s sometimes whimsical nature with the violence of American pictures. Combining Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Martin Scorsese might sound interesting in theory, but Besson’s lack of skill and wit instead leaves a pointless, meandering and overall wrong-headed movie.
The film’s true draw is less Besson than it is Robert De Niro reprising the kind of wise-guy role he’s built a career on. De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, a former mafia-hitman-turned-FBI informant, who — along with his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and two kids, Belle (Dianna Agron, I Am Number Four) and Warren (John D’Leo, Wanderlust) — has just been relocated to Normandy by the witness protection program. There’s no real plot to speak of, as the movie’s really just a fish-out-of-water tale. The story follows this violent, constantly bickering family around as they attempt to adjust to life in rural France. There are some attempts at storytelling here — like Giovanni attempting to write his memoirs — but the film’s mostly an excuse for a bit of the old ultraviolence, which is perhaps The Family’s most repugnant aspect. This is an ugly, gruesome, mean-spirited movie about four incredibly unpleasant family members who shoot, maim and bludgeon just about everyone in town. That Besson composes this for laughs doesn’t help, and in some ways makes it worse since his sense of humor is so tone deaf. As an approach, it’s a gross miscalculation, since what’s supposed to be cute and funny is actually incredibly vile and nasty, creating a film with little conscience.
But there are a couple of clever moments in which Besson gets it right. The montage of Warren’s school paper making it halfway across the world via happenstance and contrivance is honestly clever. Giovanni being invited to the local film society’s screening of Goodfellas (1990) is a bit obvious but generally amusing despite not really going anywhere, though it causes other problems within the film. The Family often attempts to act as a loving homage to American gangster flicks, but there’s no need to reference vastly superior films and more appealing De Niro performances. The constant missteps and miscalculations on Besson’s part just add insult to this grating, loathsome little movie. Rated R for violence, language and brief sexuality.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Co-ed of Brevard, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher