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The Family: Dumbfellas

by admin September 13, 2013 6:00 am
The Family: Dumbfellas

There's one comic beat buried deep in The Family that explains why Luc Besson thought this mob comedy would be worth making. Relocated with his biological family to a rural village in the Normandy region of France after betraying his Brooklyn-based professional "family," ex-Mafioso Fred Blake a.k.a. Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) is the guest of honor at a special movie screening hosted by the town's film society. The movie on the docket is Some Came Running, the 1958 Frank Sinatra/Dean Matrin film, but -- quel dommage! -- they've mistakenly been sent the print for another movie, a Martin Scorsese picture. I'll give you one guess as to which… and no, Kundun and Hugo would be the wrong picks.

It's Goodfellas, of course, which allows for a through-the-looking glass-moment where De Niro's current mobster settles in to watch one of his past mobsters along with a packed crowd. It's an obvious joke, of course, but at least it actually results in some genuine chuckles, which is more than can be said for the rest of this misfire. Adapted from a novel by Tonino Benacquista and directed by French action movie magnate Besson, The Family goes through the motions of its narrative with the same weary resignation that's plastered over the face of its leading man. Not fast enough to be farce, not twisted enough to be dark comedy and not over-the-top enough to be a gonzo action comedy, the movie spins its chamber around and around for almost two hours, firing blank after blank.

I'll walk that back a bit; there is one other story thread (besides the "De Niro watches Goodfellas thing") that hits the target and points to a version of the movie that might have worked. It involves Giovanni's two teenage kids, the strong, self-assured Belle (Dianna Agron, free of Glee) -- as beautiful as her name suggests -- and the wily, all-the-angles-covered Warren (John D'Leo), who enter the latest in a long line of new schools and promptly put their Mob training into effect. While Belle literally goes around kicking asses (of the four dudes who try and get too familiar with her and the punk girl that swipes her pencil case), Warren subtly seizes control of the institution's various black markets, which range from cigarettes and cheat sheets. "Mob kids in high school" is a high concept comic premise that Hollywood surprisingly hasn't seized upon yet and, based on these sequences any way, it's got solid potential if handed to a screenwriter with the right satirical streak. Heck, I'd even be okay with Agron and D'Leo headlining that film as well. It's fun to watch the former Quinn Fabray -- whose sharp attitude has always made up for her lack of range -- become the latest in Besson's long line of waify female action heroes (a list that includes Anne Pariullaud, Milla Jovovich and Natalie Portman), while D'Leo is funny and charming as a wiseguy-in-training. Besson himself only occasionally seems to recognize what he has with these specific characters and storyline (which ends with a whimper after kicking off with a bang), so door's open to rip him off, development folks.

While the kids (and us) are having fun at school, Giovanni and his better half Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer, who starred in the infinitely superior crime comedy Married to the Mob eons ago) are settling into their new… strike that, old home, as Witness Protection has set them up in a rundown house where the ancient pipes spew up brown water -- a plot point that comes to play a surprisingly large role in the movie as Giovanni spends much of the second half trying to figure out the source of the muck. (Because nothing's funnier than bad plumbing!) During her hubby's stints as an amateur water cop, Maggie commits small acts of patriotic arson (like blowing up a local grocery store because the proprietor insults Americans) and keeps the Agency watchdogs across the street fed. Both of them also put up with occasional visits from their handler, Robert (Tommy Lee Jones), whose efforts at protecting them from the enforcers on their tail are repeatedly stymied by the family's inability to blend in.

These kinds of fish-out-of-water, culture-clash comedies tend to work best when there's some push-and-pull between the locals and the invaders, but in The Family, the local townspeople are basically nonentities who are constantly run over (both literally and metaphorically) by the American mobsters-in-disguise. And because Giovanni and his brood have little interest in acclimating to their new environment, they remain locked in stasis as well, with the same jokes being repeated over and over. It's disappointing to watch Besson, a director once celebrated for his highly-stylized action movies (The Professional) and wild flights of fancy (The Fifth Element, a film I don't especially like to listen to, but love to look at with the sound off), overseeing a bland, undistinguished feature that's little more than a sitcom on the big screen. And not even a funny sitcom, either.

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