MOVIES

Family Ties

Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer are stellar in return to Mafia roots, but inconsistent script and subplots mar black comedy

Mob couple Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Fred (Robert De Niro), with their two children, are in the FBI's witness protection program, hiding in a French village as vengeful hitmen try to take them out in "The Family," directed by Luc Besson.
Relativity Media
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Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones

Directed by: Luc Besson

Stars: 2 1/2 out of 4

Rating: R

The good news first: "The Family" offers hope that Robert De Niro's Oscar-nominated role in "Silver Linings Playbook" last year was not a fluke and that the enormously talented actor is finally being more selective with his roles after almost a decade of mostly tripe.

More good news: "The Family" is a gangster film (sort of), reuniting De Niro with Martin Scorsese, his director in "Raging Bull," "Taxi Driver" and "Goodfellas." A major qualification is immediately in order, however: Scorsese was an executive producer for "The Family," not the director. These days, Scorsese seems to favor the younger DiCaprio rather than the aging

De Niro when he's behind the camera himself.

Last bit of good news: Michelle Pfeiffer is back in a substantial role similar to the one she played to good notices in "Married to the Mob" (1988), as a former Mob moll trying to get her life in order.

Now for the other side of the news: "The Family" is written and directed by Luc Besson, the extremely prolific writer/producer/director responsible for such diverse movies as "Leon: The Professional," "The Fifth Element," "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" and the Jason Statham "Transporter" flicks, which he only produces and sometimes writes.

Besson also likes comic books, as evidenced by "The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec" (2010), based on Jacques Tardi's graphic novel series, which has just been released here on home video.

Besson's movies are never dull, but they are frequently insubstantial, if not downright silly. "The Family" falls squarely between his best and worst work, a violent black comedy about a former mobster and his family now in the FBI's witness protection program, with an army of vengeful Mafia hitmen in pursuit. The plot is a familiar one, even the comic angle, but the new film does offer its own wrinkle: It's set in a small French village.

Besides offering a pleasant change of scenery from the usual American mean streets, the French setting allows for plenty of comic interplay for the odd duck Anglo-Italian family trying to blend without blowing their cover or killing their neighbors.

De Niro is the former informer in hiding, previously known to his mob buddies as Giovanni Manzoni but now tagged with the mundane name Fred Blake. Pfeiffer is his wife Maggie, 27-year-old Dianna Agron plays teenaged Belle and not-as-old John D'Leo plays Warren, her 15-year-old brother. Robert Stansfield, the FBI handler in charge of their safety, is Tommy Lee Jones, craggy-faced and craggy-tempered as usual.

De Niro and Pfeiffer are genuinely funny as the ex-wiseguy couple coping with nosey, snobbish neighbors in the manner to which the Mafia-bred twosome have grown accustomed. When manners are forgotten, they resort to violence. The same goes for their children, each of them eventually pummeling the living daylights out of high-school bullies. Clearly intended to elicit laughs, the separate scenarios push the boundaries a bit into gleeful ugliness — Besson giving vent to his "La Femme Nikita" impulses.

The same is particularly true for the film's climactic shootout, as the posse of black-clad bad guys hits the French burg to exact revenge. The script quickly loses credibility when the hitmen proceed to eliminate any and all citizens on their way to the Manzonis. Some restraint is called for to sustain the comic mode, black as it is, but Besson gives way instead to sound and fury, needlessly killing off some likable characters.

An important subplot involving De Niro's character writing his memoirs goes awry, as does an awkward sequence with Pfeiffer's character trying to get right with God by way of the clueless parish priest. However, the film's most inspired comic moment comes as De Niro's character, supposedly a famous writer, lectures a town gathering on American cinema after a showing of "Goodfellas."

At that point, Robert De Niro is in 
his element.

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