By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Family is an uneasy mix of black comedy, family psychodynamics, and graphically violent gangland thrills. In other words, it’s an intriguing notion that registers as a hodgepodge.
A hodgepodge with its embraceable moments, to be sure, but a hodgepodge nonetheless.
It’s the fish-out-of-water tale of a family running from the family by hiding out in the moving non-target known as the witness protection program.
Robert De Niro stars as Giovanni Manzoni, a mafia don from Brooklyn who rats out his cronies and then needs to hide out.
So, adopting the alias of Fred Blake and posing as a timid author, he and his family join the witness protection program and move around throughout France, eventually setting up housekeeping in a tiny village in Normandy.
Michelle Pfeiffer plays Blake’s vengeful and proactive wife, Maggie, Dianna Agron his antagonistic, suffer-no-fools daughter Belle, and John D’Leo his bullied but mischievous son Warren.
But can they fit in and not call attention to themselves? It won’t be easy if they continue to do things in the way they always have.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Stansfield, the curmudgeonly CIA agent appointed as Manzoni’s overseer, who has tired of moving them to a new location every time they compromise their current situation.
De Niro has made more than his share of mob flicks, although few were comedies, and Pfeiffer’s presence can’t help but remind us of her inspired work in the comedy Married to the Mob.
But although they could effortlessly phone in their roles, luckily for us neither does. The two have been in a couple of movies (Stardust and New Year’s Eve) together, but have never played a scene together until now.
And while De Niro is solid, Pfeiffer does wonders with an underwritten role.
Veteran French director Luc Besson (The Professional, The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita, Subway, The Lady), not usually thought of as a comedy maven, also wrote the screenplay with Michael Caleo, an adaptation of the comic novel Malavita (“Badfellas”), by co-writer Tonino Benacquista.
And Besson tips his hat to one of his executive producers, Martin Scorsese, by slyly referencing such director-Scorsese-and-star-De Niro collaborations as Goodfellas.
Tonewise, the film teeters between gangster melodrama and screwball comedy, but it undoes itself with violent excess. The extensive killing, maiming, and sadistic beating of innocent, uninvolved townsfolk is so callously handled that it leaves the kind of taste in your mouth that stops the culture-clash comedy in its tracks.
Only for those viewers willing to distance themselves from the casual carnage will the film comfortably entertain and/or satisfy.
So we’ll hide out from 2 stars out of 4 for the disorganized organized-crime dramedy The Family, a movie too enamored of brutal violence to escape the witless protection program.