“The Family” marks the long-awaited reunion of Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer on the big screen. Violence and the mob come into play but don’t expect another “Scarface” in this comedic take on dealing with organized crime. The film is an adaptation of “Malavita,” a book by Tonino Benacquista. It comes to us from executive producer Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”) and director Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”). Add the name Tommy Lee Jones to the project and one would expect a solid feature, right? Well, yes and no.
Giovanni Manzoni (De Niro) was a boss in the mafia in New York until he turned informant and joined a witness protection program with his family. At the start of the film, we find him en route to a small town in Normandy with wife and two kids. It seems the Europeans in these quaint towns cheat Americans, which makes it hard for a mobster like Giovanni to let go of old habits. In the last town, he kills the seafood merchant, dumping the body while everyone else settles into their new house.
Michelle Pfeiffer outshines De Niro as Giovanni’s wife, Maggie, as she scouts out the town’s inhabitants. Like her husband, Maggie can’t control her temper and blows up the supermarket after overhearing the clerk and locals insult Americans. She also spends a lot of time at church in prayer, even though it’s been years since she’s attended Mass and made a good Confession. Dianna Argon and John D’Leo are also strong as Belle and Warren, the children, who assert their authority quickly at their new school. Warren exemplifies a talent for wheeling and dealing with the students to get what he wants; one could easily envision him as the head of his own mob clan someday. In the meantime, Belle is love with the cute Parisian math instructor, a pursuit which can only turn out badly. All in all, the family is dysfunctional.
Tommy Lee Jones has only a few short scenes as Robert Stansfield, the exasperated FBI Agent in charge of checking up on Giovanni. It’s regrettable to see him underused, as we’ve already been delighted by Jones’ performance as the grumpy agent in films like “Men in Black.”
Giovanni hangs around the house as part of Stansfield’s warning to keep a low profile. He tells the neighbors that he is a writer of military history, a field about which he knows very little. He sits at the typewriter and gives us his version of life in the mob in Brooklyn. His narrative is interrupted by his duty as man of the house: to rid the kitchen faucet of brown water, a problem that is caused by the local water plant. He moves along the administrative chain, taking out his frustration on each person either in his imagination or in reality. Besson’s cutting style keeps you guessing until the end of each encounter, offering some comic relief.
The mob is still out for Manzoni blood and gets closer and closer to their query. The pace of the film really picks up when the mobsters arrive near the end. The strong use of shadows coupled with the scratchy music ramp up the tension and suspense, but the thrill is short-lived. Overall, “The Family” provides some laughs and quality action, but leaves a lot of loose threads.