Opening today at a theater near you:
THE FAMILY (Dir. Luc Besson, 2013)
Seeing Luc Besson’s new mob comedy THE FAMILY makes me wonder if Robert De Niro will be remembered by future generations for his roles that poked fun at his image as a scary Mafioso type, more than the classic roles in which he actually portrayed a scary Mafioso type.
Here De Niro plays a former New York mob boss, living in France with his wife (Michelle Pfeifer) and teenage offspring (John D'Leo and Glee’s Dianna Agron) under the witness relocation program.
The set-up obviously recalls the end of GOODFELLAS, in which Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill complains about getting egg noodles with ketchup when he orders spaghetti with marinara sauce after being relocated to the suburbs for snitching on his former buddies.
THE FAMILY’s wiseguy fish-out-of-water premise also recalls the 1990 Herbert Ross-helmed Steve Martin/Rick Moranis comedy MY BLUE HEAVEN (incidentally written by the late great Nora Ephron who was married to GOODFELLAS screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi).
But those reference points are over 20 years old now, so after countless spoofs of modern mafia movies, as well as six seasons of HBO’s dark comic drama The Sopranos, every trope THE FAMILY trots out has been done to death. Adapted by Tonino Benacquista from his 2010 novel “Badfellas” (that’s right), THE FAMILY has a few funny lines and a couple of decent gags, but the overly familiar structure (along with the high volume of convenient convolutions in the storyline) can't help but highlight how redundant it is.
De Niro spends the movie either trying to write his memoirs - an activity frowned on by Tommy Lee Jones as a CIA agent assigned to protect the undercover family – or trying to get somebody to do something about the brown water coming out of his house’s taps. De Niro’s worn-out character trait is that he speaks softly but will do violent damage to any non-relative who says something offensive to him. One scene has him dragging a fertilizer plant CEO behind his car for suggesting he switch to bottled water.
Pfeifer, also no stranger to this territory (see Jonathan Demme’s 1988 mob comedy MARRIED TO THE MOB), along with D’Leo and Agron, handle matters in the same abrasive manner. Pfeifer blows up a grocery store for snide remarks made at her expense by the clerks, D’Leo arranges for a brutal beating of his high school bully, and Agron makes like KICK ASS’s Hit-Girl when she takes a tennis racket to the head of a fellow student who puts the moves on her.
Trouble is that the film is so boringly broad that these scenarios have no ambition over getting cheap laughs from indiscriminate audiences. It also tries to go where it really shouldn’t when De Niro is invited to a local film club for a screening of the 1958 Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin movie SOME COME RUNNING, but there’s a mix-up and GOODFELLAS is shown instead. Besson’s film hasn’t earned that attempt at a meta moment, especially as it only aims for the funny from Jones’ grumpy cat reaction to De Niro yet again being unable to control.
After the effort De Niro put into his Oscar nominated role in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, it's disheartening to see him once again walk through a role. The man seriously doesn't seem to care about being the center of another self-referential mafia-themed farce - the ANALYSE THIS/THAT films should've been where he drew the line.
TV spots for the THE FAMILY highlight that Martin Scorsese was involved as one of the executive producers, even blaring an early ‘70s Rolling Stones track on top of clips (no Stones music appears in the movie) to shade the proceedings with his presence. This is an un-wiseguy move as it just calls into attention how much this film misses the mark.
Scorsese hasn’t directed De Niro since 1995’s CASINO, but a future collaboration – THE IRISHMAN based on the Charles Brandt book “I Heard You Paint Houses” - is reportedly in the works. Here’s hoping that will come together soon, because after the mess Besson has made here stumbling blindly around Marty’s territory, a clean-up crew is sorely needed.