By Joan Ellis
Let’s assume you set out to make a Mafia spoof. A family enters the FBI witness protection program to avoid death at the hands of furious avengers in hot pursuit. That’s the premise for The Family.
Then, in an inspired move, you cast Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert DeNiro, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo as the family and Tommy Lee Jones as their FBI protector. Then you send them all to live an undercover life in France. Of all the families in the world that would have trouble blending into the French culture, this one would top every list. Imagine the comic potential. Four people whose instincts tell them violence is the solution to every problem when their new surroundings and circumstances demand just the opposite.
Dangling before us is the possible delight of watching the characters submerge their impulses in order to assimilate. Instead, writer/ director Luc Besson and co-writer Michael Caleo have their characters indulge their naturally vicious tendencies on the theory that humor lies not in irony but in uncivilized explosions of temper and weaponry. He dooms his movie by wrapping every single act in exaggerated violence. As if that weren’t enough, in the rare moments when family members show restraint, we are treated to on-screen enactments of the brutal fantasies they would choose if only they weren’t being restrained by their handlers.
When mom Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) is insulted in the grocery store, she fashions a bomb from materials available in the aisles and blows the place up. Because Michelle Pfeiffer is so deft with her accent and expressions, this first one is actually funny. When 14-year-old Warren (John D’Leo) starts building a criminal empire at school, the class bullies beat him to a pulp. When Belle (Dianna Agron) is the victim of an attempted rape, she beats her attacker nearly to death with a tennis racket. When Fred (Robert De Niro) loses his temper while hosting a barbecue for neighbors, director Besson unfurls for our pleasure Fred’s fantasy: ramming the offender’s face onto the hot grill and stuffing a burning coal down a guest’s throat.
At one time or another, our assimilating family uses baseball bats, hammers, sledges, and their feet to administer justice. The only reason the now silent audience doesn’t cut and run is that the four actors manage to plant a certain curiosity as to how things will end. Pfeiffer is outstanding while De Niro is adequate as the slow-witted dad. Dianna Agron is perfect as the all-American high school blonde who is the fantasy of her classmates until she turns anything at hand into a weapon. John D’Leo is fine as the mob boss in training. Tommy Lee Jones’ FBI agent is no match for the family he’s trying to protect.
Beginning with the first scene of multiple murders, a prolonged silence envelops the audience that had expected to laugh heartily at a movie billed as a comedy. This good cast deserved better.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.