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Actor Robert De Niro has become a quintessential name in the gangster crime genre, having portrayed a number of iconic mafiosos throughout his career. He showcased the rise to power of a young Vito Corleone in the award winning “The Godfather II,” provided a viscous look into gangland violence in “Goodfellas,” displayed the pitfalls of hubris in his portrayal of a mafia money-man in “Casino” and allowed the bad guy to look good in “The Untouchables.” These films and more have become definitive staples in the genre and have allowed De Niro to create characters who encapsulate the varying aspects of life as a wise guy.
His most recent role in “The Family” has him returning to a genre that helped to define his career, but unfortunately it never manages to come close to the high calibur set by his previous performances.
Directed by Luc Besson (“Taken,” “Leon: The Professional”), “The Family” is a dark comedy about a high-profile mafia snitch named Giovanni Manzoni, who along with his family has been relocated to Normandy, France as part of a legal deal placing them in the witness protection program, allowing them to avoid gangland retribution from those Manzoni has betrayed. Old habits die hard, however, as the Manzoni clan can’t help but return to their old ways, leading to a string of misadventures in their newly adopted home.
On paper, the film seemed like a uniquely fun look at the life of a gangster — allowing for a chance to see what family life would be like for a professional criminal — rounded out by a star-studded cast including Michelle Pfeiffer as the sadistic wife seeking redemption, up-and-comers Dianna Agron and John D’Leo as the street-smart Manzoni children and Tommy Lee Jones as a sympathetic FBI handler. Unfortunately, the film falls flat, and continues to roll down hill from the opening scene to the anti-climactic finish.
What hampers “The Family” is not the premise but the characters themselves. The story introduces us to the family of four as they arrive in Normandy and proceeds to send each of them off on their own individual odysseys. Each character makes a series of outlandish decisions that bury them deeper within their self-dug rabbit holes, but these decisions lack any sense of introspection or motivation from the characters other than to move them along to the next scene. The characters switch between their emotions faster than light switches without enough time to allow the audience to sympathize with them. The family feels so out of place at times in the film that secondary and tertiary characters become more likable then the family themselves. This constant disconnection from the lead characters hampers the film from hitting its mark in many of the definitive scenes of the film.
“The Family” does have its comedic moments, most of which occur in scenes involving D’Leo’s character and his satirical rise to power as a high school kingpin and De Niro’s character’s battle with the city’s oddly secretive water provider. Most of the jokes and gags in the film rely too heavily on satirizing the mafioso film character, and often land too on-the-nose to be taken seriously. The most cringe-worthy gag comes from an all too convenient moment when De Niro’s character is given the opportunity to be a part of a film screening of “Goodfellas,” the real-life film that De Niro starred in previously. The opportunity for De Niro to essentially poke fun at himself feels overly contrived, and like much of the content of the film, just doesn’t fit in.
De Niro’s gravitas as an accomplished character actor in the genre may be enough to sell some tickets, but constant missteps in character and story make the film a dull affair. “The Family” is a convoluted film that attempts to juggle one too many themes but ends up dropping most of them. In the pantheon of gangster movies, this one should be whacked.
Follow Chirag Patel on Twitter: @cbpatel86
As published in the Sept. 19 issue of the Pepperdine Graphic.