French director Luc Besson spent the 1990s deftly mixing genres. After the brilliant but relatively straight-ahead action film La Femme Nikita, Besson infused the action genre with familial tenderness and surprising humor in Leon: The Professional. In his follow-up, The Fifth Element, he threw sci-fi, comedy, action, romance, and martial arts into a blender, hit the liquefy button, and produced one of the most original (and best-aging) films of the decade.
Besson then stumbled with The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Audiences were not quite sure what to make of a war flick with religious undertones that crudely combined almost-Vaudevillian comedy with fountains of blood.
The Messenger failed where The Professional and The Fifth Element succeeded because the tonal shifts were too jarring: Joan of Arc was prone to cracking wise as she lay dying on a stone table shortly after a man’s head was liquidated by a spinning metal ball. The Professional maintained a feeling of compassionate wit even as the film shifted between fish-out-of-water comedy and high-tension action. Similarly, The Fifth Element hewed to its high-camp sensibility, refusing to get bogged down in anything serious even as the fate of the world was at stake.
Unfortunately, The Family more closely resembles The Messenger than it does The Professional or The Fifth Element. The mixture of the gangster and family drama genres simply doesn’t work because the tone is all over the place: sometimes funny, sometimes dark, sometimes disturbing, The Family never settles into a groove.
Robert De Niro stars as Giovanni Manzoni, re-christened Fred Blake by the Witness Protection Program and stashed in Normandy to keep him safe from the mob he betrayed years before. Giovanni has traipsed through much of France—Paris, the Riviera—as he, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), and son Warren (John D’Leo) are forced to stay under the radar of the mafia.
The stakes are set high early on, as we see enforcer Rocco (Don Freda) break into a family’s home and murder four folks who closely resemble the "Blakes." Protecting our protagonists from a lethal dose of vengeance are Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) and a pair of junior G-men keeping an eye on the house.
As the family settles into their new surroundings, they bring a unique set of skills to bear on the problems they face. Maggie commits some light arson after a shopkeeper insults her and every other American; Belle sets about seducing a math teacher after brutally beating an acne-scarred teen who tries to hit on her; and Warren forms his own mini-mob to get revenge on a couple of toughs who threaten him (and to make a little cash on the side).
Giovanni, meanwhile, sets off on an annoyingly unnecessary side-plot in which he tries to figure out why the water in his house is brown and in which he engages in a series of extremely violent acts.
It’s in the subplot where the tonal shifts are most jarring. On the one hand, the violence is played for laughs. On the other, the viciousness is shown in disturbing detail. Giovanni drags a corporate executive behind his car after the executive disrespects him, and we see, in close up, the damage to the man’s flesh and bones. His face torn and limbs askew, we are in no mood to chuckle.
That sort of juxtaposition sometimes serves as a critique of the genre in question—see the first Kick-Ass film, for example. But The Family is far from a critique of the gangster drama. Indeed, in many ways, it is a loving homage: In one oddly funny, disconcertingly meta sequence, De Niro’s character is asked by the head of a French film society to watch, and comment upon, the film Goodfellas. It goes swimmingly, with Giovanni receiving a standing ovation for, in essence, blowing his witness protection cover.
Even so, those excited for the return of Besson to the action-comedy game likely will come away disappointed from this jumbled, visually bland effort.