Robert De Niro has been sleepwalking through so many movies over these past 15 years that it’s downright shocking to find him as alert and engaged as he is in The Family, a bizarrely atonal farce from The Fifth Element director Luc Besson. Wearing shorts, a bathrobe and a big bushy beard, De Niro puts a spring in his step as Giovanni Manzoni, a former gangster who ratted out the boss and has been bouncing around France courtesy of the Federal Witness Protection Program ever since. Much to the consternation of his crotchety case handler (Tommy Lee Jones), old habits die hard.
Giovanni’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) can’t seem to shake her penchant for arson, while their teenage kids (Glee’s Dianna Agron and John D’Leo) are chips off the old block: He runs every high school cafeteria like a con game, while she savagely fends off aggressive suitors with a tennis racket. It’s a cheerful family full of sociopaths, wildly over-reacting to every perceived slight with bursts of graphic violence. As they’re a bunch of ugly Americans abroad, you can probably imagine that the snubs keep coming. Besson doesn’t stint on the R-rated bloodletting, which lends an odd aftertaste to the breezy slapstick surrounding it.
Working from Tonino Benacquista’s novel Malavita, Besson and co-screenwriter Michael Caleo liberally sample from a variety of plotlines, most of which are abandoned after a scant few scenes. At first, Giovanni intends to write his memoirs, but nothing really comes of that, so he moves along to pounding on plumbers, torturing city officials and blowing up chemical plants in a civic-minded attempt to improve the tap water quality in their tiny Normandy village. There’s a neighborhood barbecue that goes nowhere, a high school swindle that is never quite explained, plus an odd detour in which Agron seduces her math tutor. Meanwhile, there’s still a $20 million bounty on Giovanni’s head, specifying that his wife must be raped and his children murdered, too. This is a weird movie.
Despite all the carnage, De Niro greets every scene with twinkly-eyed delight. Pfeiffer revisits her Married to the Mob shtick, and the two kick up a relaxed, sexy rapport. But Bobby saves the best banter for Jones, aggravating the poker-faced fed to no end, even dragging him along to a local film society screening of Goodfellas. The Family is a curious mess, but the cast is having a grand old time.
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