We’ve grown reluctantly accustomed to seeing Robert De Niro starring in half-baked comedies in recent years, but 'The Family' heralds a (sort of) return to form for the actor, placing him in familiar hard-man mafia territory. Directed by Luc Besson, perhaps best known for 'Leon' and 'The Fifth Element', this dark comedy casts De Niro as patriarch of the formerly Brooklyn-based Manzoni family, on the run in provincial Normandy under the watchful eye of the FBI’s witness protection scheme.
While De Niro’s Fred Blake is tasked with keeping a low profile after (presumably) snitching on the now-imprisoned Don Luchese, the rest of the Blake family – a formidable Michelle Pfeiffer as dutiful wife Maggie, plus John D’Leo and Dianna Agron as the obligatory smart-mouthed teenagers – get to grips with their new lives, and all the accompanying cultural niggles.
The stereotypes are many (snooty French food snobs, snooty French mayor, snooty French school kids, dodgy French tap water – welcome to Europe, guys!) but are largely tongue-in-cheek rather than offensive, with De Niro and Pfeiffer working the comedy angle very well indeed, showing natural on-screen rapport.
While there are plenty of funny moments, usually stemming from De Niro’s grossly disproportionate (read: ultra-violent) reactions to French customer service, 'The Family' suffers from its awkward and rather abrupt shifts in tone. Cosy family scenes clash with grisly murders, and the lengthy misty-eyed reminiscence sequences, as the father types up his memoirs, slow the pace of the film to a crawl –while the flashbacks are vague and largely ineffective at filling in the gaps in the backstory.
The characters in this family have an almost cartoonish quality, and though this was probably intentional, it does make it slightly more difficult to connect with them emotionally – especially when the film is littered with pantomime winks to the gangster flick genre. Films like 'Kick-Ass' manage to nail this difficult balance of comic-book protagonists, crazy violence, dark humour and emotional depth, but 'The Family' unfortunately misses the mark.
'The Family' is out in UK cinemas now, through EntertainmentOne.