Monday, September 23, 2013

The Family

Mel’s Cine Files: All in the Family

By Melissa Agar

The Family (Relativity Media, 2013) – Director: Luc Besson. Screenplay: Luc Besson and Michael Caleo. Based on the book by Tonino Benacquista. Cast: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Pastore, & Oisin Stack. Color, 110 minutes.

When I was in high school, one of my absolute favorite movies was Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob. Part of it likely stemmed from my obsession with its soundtrack which had a permanent spot in the tape deck, but a lot of it was rooted in the way that it took a popular film form, the mob movie, and poked holes in it with tremendous humor. At the center of the film was Pfeiffer, poised at the moment of her career’s absolute explosion, who played a spunky mob wife determined to break from the Mafia life and forge an independent identity for her and her young son. I found myself thinking of that movie quite a lot during Pfeiffer’s return to the mob life in The Family. Besson’s mob comedy doesn’t quite reach the heights of Married to the Mob but it offers a funny and charming take on the violent world of the Mafia life.

The Family stars DeNiro as Giovanni Manzoni, a third generation made man who has turned state’s evidence and ratted out his friends. Now, he and his family – wife Maggie (Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Agron), and son Warren (D’Leo) – are the Blakes of Normandy, France. For six years, Gio (now known as Fred) and the family have been shuttled from home to home, always one-step ahead of the hit men who want to kill them. Under the supervision of FBI agent Robert Stansfield (Jones), they have been placed in Normandy to once again build a life. 

Gio/Fred decides to start writing his memoirs while the family struggles to keep their own wiseguy tendencies at bay. Maggie blows up a grocery store after hearing the clerk complain about Americans. Belle beats up a group of teenaged Lotharios who get a little too fresh. Warren scopes out the activities of his classmates and exploits them to get revenge on the bullies who violently welcome him to his new school. None of them are happy. Gio/Fred yearns for his life running the streets of his New York neighborhood and finds his own violent tendencies hard to control. The one thing the family has is each other; a fact that makes them all the more vulnerable to the hit men hunting them down. The Family, at its core, is a pretty heartwarming family film. For all of their faults, there is no denying that the Blakes love each other. Because of the constant threat of violence under which they live, they cling to one another and their loyalty is inspiring. 

Despite that pretty fuzzy core, the film is also aware that it is a mob comedy and embraces the violence that other mob comedies often shy away from. The film opens with the murder of a family remarkably similar to the Blakes and culminates in a feeding frenzy of violence that leaves many innocent bystanders dead. The heartlessness with which these people are dispatched is a bit disconcerting and left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth although I realized that was part of the point – to highlight the fact that innocent people get caught in the crossfire all the time. The brutality of the climactic battle also serves to highlight something Gio/Fred discusses in his memoir – that he was set apart from his colleagues by his often compassionate treatment of potential victims. As an audience member, you know that Gio would never indiscriminately gun down innocent bystanders. 

Watching DeNiro once again send up his persona (a fact given a perfect meta wink during Gio’s visit to a neighborhood film society screening) has its charms although I do yearn for him to tackle a good old drama again to remind us all what a powerhouse actor he can be. The film also serves as a reminder of what tremendous chemistry he has with his fellow actors. His scenes with both Pfeiffer and Jones crackle with humor and charm while his work with Agron and D’Leo help define the heart at the core of the film.  As easy as it can be to forget after a decade of Focker films and other choices that seem more about a paycheck than actually pursuing the art of acting, there’s no denying what a tremendous actor DeNiro is.

The same is true of Pfeiffer. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Michelle Pfeiffer was one of the biggest movie stars there was. She was one of those rare actors who could be sexy and intelligent at the same time. She seemed to disappear for a while, but seeing her here again is just a reminder of why she was one of my favorite actors when I was in high school and college. She has a face that is filled with expression. Factor in the delicate tightrope she walks between strength and vulnerability, and she is a powerhouse in need of re-discovery. 

While this film largely belongs to DeNiro and Pfeiffer, Agron and D’Leo get substantial storylines of their own. Agron’s Belle feels trapped by her family’s circumstances and longs for escape. When she falls for a handsome college student (Stack), her escape seems like a possibility. Warren, meanwhile, is a chip off the old block although more likely to run the cons than be the actual muscle. D’Leo, in particular, has a charming onscreen presence, filled with intelligence and charisma. If there’s any justice, this young man is going to be a star. Agron is the more recognizable of the two kids thanks to her time on Glee, and it is nice to see her show a little more spark and ferocity here than during her time with New Directions. 

Strong performances help this film mask its plot flaws. There are some questions left lingering after you walk out of the theater, mostly rooted in why Gio betrayed his colleagues when his love for “the life” is still so readily apparent. The conceit of having Gio write his memoirs hints at a clever way to provide some of this exposition, but it never really comes. Stansfield and Gio discuss whether he’ll address “everything” in his memoir, but whatever “everything” they might want to keep hidden never is revealed. While it never really hinders the stakes of the film (we care too much about the Blakes to want anything bad to happen to them), it does leave us feeling a bit distant from our protagonist.

Ultimately, The Family is a charming but violent film kept afloat by strong actors. It doesn’t necessarily reinvent the genre, but it provides a pleasant early fall diversion as we wait for the glut of holiday blockbusters and Oscar contenders.  

Grade: B

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