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"THE FAMILY"
(2013) (Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action Comedy: A mafia family can't stop resorting to their old ways when they are sent to France in the witness relocation program.
PLOT:
Giovanni Manzoni (ROBERT De NIRO) is a former New York gangster who snitched on his mob superiors to the Feds and is now forced to live in Witness Relocation in France, under the watchful eye of Agent Robert Stansfield (TOMMY LEE JONES) and his assistants Di Cicco (JIMMY PALUMBO) and Caputo (DOMENICK LOMBARDOZZI). With him are his equally mobbed-up wife, Maggie (MICHELLE PFEIFFER), his whip-smart teenage son, Warren (JOHN D'LEO), and his blossoming teenage daughter, Belle (DIANNA AGRON).

In their small French town near Normandy, though, the Manzonis can't help being who they are. Giovanni resorts to mob-style violence to handle problems with the local mayor and plumber. Maggie torches a grocery store whose manager and customers insult her. Warren turns the local high school into his own personal organized crime ring. And Maggie falls in love with her math tutor between beating fellow students -- who get in her way -- to a pulp.

Giovanni also poses a threat because he hopes to write his memoirs while in isolation and further expose the mob and even his government handlers. Eventually, the Manzonis blow their cover and jailed mobster Don Mimino (DOMINIC CHIANESE) sends a hit team to kill the family.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Among TV critics and fans lately, there has been a lot of talk of the viewing audience taking a liking to anti-heroes - i.e. the immoral, unscrupulous lead characters of such shows as "Breaking Bad," "Dexter," and "Mad Men." But similar articles have been written in the past specifically with regards to audiences embracing the archetype of the American mobster. Characters played by the likes of James Cagney, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and James Gandolfini were murderous men who the audience more than identified -- they loved!

Why is that? Probably because mobsters give the illusion of control in a world where people often feel that control is out of their hands. Admit it. There have been times you wish you could go Don Corleone or Tony Soprano on an old school bully or a driver who cut you off on the road or a mechanic or electrician who ripped you off.

Robert De Niro has certainly played several of these types, and he returns to this kind of role with "The Family." The film is a dark action-comedy from director Luc Besson and producer Martin Scorsese about Giovanni, a former Brooklyn mobster who snitched on his Mafia brethren and is now living in Witness Protection with his family in France. But the mob boss he turned in wants him dead and has put out a hit on his life. That's the action element of the film.

The comedy comes in when Giovanni and his wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and their two teenage kids Belle and Warren (Dianna Agron and John D'Leo) try to assimilate into small-town French living but they can't help treating every situation that comes up like they're still New York gangsters. So, when Giovanni has a problem with the local plumber, he doesn't file a complaint or give a bad rating on the Internet. He takes a baseball bat to his knees and elbows. When Maggie is insulted at a local grocery store for being a crude American, she doesn't take her business elsewhere. She bombs the place. When Warren is bullied at school, he doesn't go to the principal or his teachers. He coerces several classmates each with unique talents to form a posse and beat the heck out of them! And Belle? Don't try to get fresh with her. She'll beat you to a pulp with a tennis racket.

Federal agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) tries his best to keep them in line, but it's like herding kittens -- strutting, homicidal Sicilian kittens. Eventually, the jailed mob boss back in the States gets wind of the family's whereabouts and sends his hit squad.

"The Family" is a mixed bag, to be sure. When it's good, it is really good! The climax is surprisingly tense, and the action is brutal and creative. No surprise considering Besson has been one of the key creative forces behind such thrillers as "Taken," "The Fifth Element," and "The Professional." He likes guns, lots of guns. He likes characters that still smoke and drink and cuss. And he really, really likes people getting hit with blunt objects.

But the film's real goal is to be a dark comedy. And when it is funny, it is very funny. But when these two elements don't come together, the result can be quite off-putting. Hitting a guy with a baseball four times funny er, potentially funny. Hitting him a couple of dozen times and breaking every bone in his arms and legs -- eek!

I also think this was a much more nuanced and detailed screenplay at some point. There is clearly more to Giovanni's backstory that was probably in some version of the script. We never really find out why he snitched. We can infer that the Feds had him dead to rights. But it's sketchy. There is also some politician in Washington who fears the memoir that Giovanni is writing and has Jones' Robert character keep him under extra close surveillance as a result. But that part of the film ends up going nowhere. It's completely not needed when all is said and done.

This is one of those movies that I think audiences will go either way on. I am giving it a mild recommendation, because I think the good outweighs the not-so-good. But you have to have a fairly strong stomach for violence to be able to fully enjoy it. But then again, if you have been a regular viewer of "Breaking Bad" and "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" and such, this will probably seem like old hat. I give it a 5.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed September 11, 2013 / Posted September13, 2013


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