Sunday, September 15, 2013

Baguettaboutit!: "Family" uneven but wickedly tasty lark

The Family (2013) 
110 min., rated R.

Severed fingers. Sheet-wrapped corpses in trunks. Fiery deaths. Beatings with baseball bats and tennis rackets. None of this sounds like fodder for a frothy family comedy, and when you bring in the context that the film's generic title alludes to a mob family, all bets are off. "The Family," directed by Luc Besson (he of 1994's "Léon: The Professional" and 1997's "The Fifth Element"), is an offbeat charcoal-black comedy that's brutal and amusing, sometimes even in the same scene, and while certainly uneven and perhaps never laugh-out-loud hilarious, it's a wickedly tasty lark.

After ratting out the Brooklyn Mafia, patriarch Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) enters the Witness Protection Program, packs his family's bags, and relocates them to a sleepy, charming village in Normandy, France. Assuming the alias name of Fred Blake, the former don and his family, including wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), 17-year-old daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), and 14-year-old son Warren (John D'Leo), never stay in one place for very long, but they're going to have to adjust somehow. Unfortunately, old habits die hard and each family member has a short fuse. Regularly checked on by FBI Agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), Giovanni/Fred decides to stay at home and write his memoirs, hopefully without blowing his cover, but if the plumber is going to give him the runaround or rip him off, the mob boss-turned-informant might have to break his legs. Meanwhile, Maggie confesses her deep, dark secrets to a horrified priest; Belle delivers the beatdown to touchy teenage boys and school-supplies thieves, and then pines after a college-aged math tutor; and Warren is like the godfather of his school, taking out bullies and co-owning a blackmarket cigarette business. Then, when the mafiosos learn of the Blakes' whereabouts, Normandy itself is walking on a razor's edge. Who will end up sleeping with the fishes?

Based on Tonino Benacquista's book "Malavita" and co-scripted by Besson and Michael Caleo, "The Family" initially doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. Fortunately, it toys with expectations in not being what everyone is expecting a broad, stale, patronizing farce. While it's still played for chuckles, the threat of the mob is more gravely serious. In the early going, the tonal shifts from the family trying to fit in to committing (and in some cases, fantasizing about) harsh, bloody acts of violence can be jarring and schizophrenic, sometimes leaving the viewer unsure of whether or not they should be laughing or cringing. However, Besson finds a facetious middle ground without making his fish-out-of-water mob comedy a spoof or a snarky exercise in nihilism, compensating for its lack of gradual development with darkly humored carnage and sharp performances. In one of the lighter moments, a scene where Giovanni agrees to attend a community film screening and discuss a certain "American classic" is a knowing, slyer-than-it-could-have-been highlight (executive producer Martin Scorsese even gets a shout-out). And since Besson will never be known for his comic timing or light touch without there being a body count, he lends some snap and style to the proceedings. Another plus is the integration of Gorillaz's song "Clint Eastwood" during the mob's siege on Normandy before the film culminates in a violent, expertly tense, and excitingly bad-ass finale with a near-suicide, pyrotechnics, a chase, and retribution.

At times, it seems like everyone in the cast is acting in a different movie, but they all make it work. By now, De Niro must like to just work, no matter the material (despite his most impressive work to date in "Silver Linings Playbook"). Here, as Giovanni, he can do this type of role in his sleep but makes him less of a cartoon than he's been content to play lately. As the matriach, the agelessly radiant Pfeiffer reaches a bit more, injecting some prickly edge, unexpected humor, and empathy to a role she knows well from playing a mobster's wife in both 1983's "Scarface" and 1988's "Married to the Mob." Also, it's a kick to see the wickedly beautiful Pfeiffer, with her still-fantastic high cheekbones and Brooklyn accent, ask which aisle the "peanut butta" is in, tell the American-bashing cashier to keep the change and then blow up a supermarket. Relative newcomer D'Leo has a wise-guy presence that's perfect for Warren, and "Glee's" Agron makes her strongest impression on screen. The camera loves her and she hits some honest notes playing Belle as a teenage girl who can very well take care of herself but won't deal well with first love when it's unrequited. Jones plays himself, a world-weary grump, and doesn't bring anything special to his underwritten and pretty superfluous part, although he makes a suitable straight man in a key moment with De Niro.

Despite the pedigree of De Niro and Pfeiffer getting American audiences into the theater, it's difficult to say what many will make of "The Family." It won't be for all tastes. It doesn't have a laugh track to remind you when to laugh. It doesn't always click as much as you'd like it to, either. A trifle in hindsight, "The Family" can be sinfully, morbidly funny and still manages to come out in the wash anyway.

Grade: B - 

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