For a film that often feels dysfunctional and suffers from failure to click, The Family is a lot of good and clean, dirty, and in-jokey fun. A darkish but somehow kindly gangland satire, roughly in the genre neighborhood of Prizzi’s Honor and Get Shorty, the film serves up piecemeal pleasures — not the least of which is seeing Robert De Niro in a decent and gamely self-referential role — and loopy insider genre play — not the least of which swirls around the gruff but loveable, grounding presence of De Niro. In other words, De Niro, the man/the myth in need of more decent screen work, saves this picture from its missteps and misfiring comic foibles.
But what makes The Family an interesting twist on mobster-movie lore is also what compromises its success. French filmmaker Luc Besson is behind the project, as director and cowriter, and he brings his love of mafia cinema to the project, through the prism of a European-American interventional schematic. But there’s a cultural translation problem afoot here: Besson doesn’t seem to have a handle on what makes American comedy tick, and too much of the farce factor deflates on impact.
With The Family, he forces the issue with a plot involving a witness protection program for the ruthless — but “family man” — mobster (De Niro) and his family, who are placed in the French Riviera and then Normandy. The family’s efforts to “fit in” with its new home give rise to various comic schemes and an underlying “family values” subplot, despite the shakedowns, arson, and ruffians. Michelle Pfeiffer is also great fun to watch as the long-suffering wife of the mobster who also has her own edgy side when required.
There are great bits in the film, such as a clever montage following the improbable but magical journey of a Normandy newspaper across the ocean and into the hands of vengeful fate. We get the gist of Besson’s film geekdom in a scene in which De Niro is invited by the local cineastes to watch and debate a film, which turns out to be GoodFellas, inspiring De Niro to regale the rapt gathering with his real-life follies on the mean streets. By then, we realize that The Family is best viewed in a cheeky film-about-film light, with the added bonus of a De Niro sighting with echoes of the old glory.