It’s been some time since Robert De Niro starred in a film that could be considered a bona fide success. There have been recent entries into his filmography that rightly have their champions (his turn in Silver Linings Playbook, for instance), but even pleasing supporting roles have been largely drowned amidst a tide of lamentable disappointments. Luc Besson’s uneven Gallic gangster farce The Family (2013) casts the acting Goliath as a now all-too-familiar caricature of the parts that made his name. The result is a movie peppered with slapstick violence that plays at such a pitch as to nullify any of its possible potential.
De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, the patriarch of an American family commuting around France on a witness protection programme. The Manzoni’s predicament comes as a result of Giovanni squealing on a very different type of ‘family’ – the kind inclined to repay his betrayal with a hail of bullets. Manzoni pitches up beneath the cover of darkness in a small Normandy town along with wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and children Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo). They arrive with the Feds in tow and their handler, Robert, (Tommy Lee Jones) imploring them to keep a low profile. Regrettably, old habits die hard and a quiet life is made more elusive for the ‘Blakes’ by a group of merciless killers in town.
The film’s casting is spot on, even if the recognisable faces are playing up to type rather than doing anything particularly worthwhile. De Niro obviously convinces as an ageing Mafioso despite sleepwalking through proceedings, and the always cantankerous Jones similarly trudges around on autopilot. Pfieffer does breathes a little life into her ‘feisty wife’ role, but ultimately none of the characters get under the skin enough to warrant a great deal of consideration, let alone empathy. Besson goes about things with typical flare, but after an opening determined to decorate every scene transition with a clever match-cut, it becomes a little tiresome. More wearing still is the fact that The Family never quite nails the comedic tone that it’s so patently aiming for.
Besson and Michael Caleo’s dialogue falls largely flat, whilst the violence veers from knockabout to bone-crunching. Ridiculous plot contrivances muddy the waters further (just wait and see how the mob discover Gio’s hideout) despite being presented in a suitably knowing fashion that the audience is expected to guffaw along with. That’s the real problem The Family has – it’s never as fun as it should be. People are hilariously hospitalised, a running gag sees De Niro expressing the full gamut of human emotion through a single profanity, and even Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) makes a cameo appearance, all of which are as likely to provoke groans of displeasure than waves of laughter. If it’s a late De Niro masterwork you’re after, this certainly isn’t it.