By Eric Scott Santiago
Director Luc Besson’s “The Family” doesn’t have arbitrary film conventions, like a complex plot or a cohesive idea and that’s okay. What it does have is an incredibly talented cast that knows how to play their viciously fun roles.
Things get hairy when mafia boss Giovanni Mazoni (Robert De Niro) decides to become an FBI informant. Giovanni takes his family into the witness protection program under the watchful eye of agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones). They are soon shipped out to a small town in the heart of France, but adjusting to a new place isn’t easy and the newly rechristened “Blake” family won’t have an easy time of it.
Each member of the family faces different challenges and Besson takes a lot of time to show each of their stories. As a result, the impending doom of the mafia hitmen isn’t felt until the last 20 minutes. While this cripples the overarching plot, the time spent following the family is nonetheless enjoyable.
It soon becomes clear that the townspeople of Normandy, the same town of the D-Day landings in World War II, aren’t exactly welcoming to outsiders, particularly Americans. French residents continuously snipe and snigger at the Blakes as they attempt to adjust. But, being the ex-mafiosos that they are, the Blake family retaliates.
For instance, when Maggie Blake (Michelle Pfeiffer) is laughed at for trying to buy peanut butter at the grocery store, she blows up the store with a propane tank. The same type of gratuitous violence occurs when a plumber tells Fred Blake, Giovanni’s cover name, that he doesn’t know why the faucet is leaking brown water. In response, Fred attacks the plumber with a baseball bat.
“The Family” continuously doles out callous violence and for the most part, it works. The seemingly pointless and erratic spurts of mayhem walk the fine line between cringe-worthy and hilariousness. But “The Family” does have its clever and touching moments. These come from the Blake children, Warren (John D’Leo) and Belle (Dianna Agron). Both are of high school age and simultaneously tackle the two most popular archetypes of young adult stories.
As the nerd, Warren is bullied from the beginning and he is beaten up on his first day of class. Whereas most high school stories would see Warren finding a group of close friends and overcoming adversity, “The Family” throws a mafia spin on it. After discovering his bully’s weakness, Warren leads a hostile takeover and hijacks the school’s student body, becoming the most well-connected kid in school.
Belle goes on another equally iconic journey as the girl who falls in love for the first time. Once she falls for her handsome math tutor, Belle sets out after his heart. In another diversion from the norm, she partially succeeds. However, after promptly losing her virginity to him, she is unceremoniously dumped over the phone.
For all of these reasons, it’s easy to forget that “The Family” is a two-hour film and not a TV series. It’s remarkable that so much storytelling is accomplished in so little time, but it’s just not cohesive enough to call it one distinct story.
By the end of the film, nothing significant is resolved and the Blakes take their respective character developments on to the next new town and will presumably face the same challenges that they did in Normandy. And while that hurts the overall movie, it’s a lot of fun to watch them get to that point.