Luc Besson is best known for his testosterone-fueled action thrillers, so the dark comedy “The Family” represents a major departure for the French-born multi-hyphenate. It’s also his first English-language film in over a decade, not counting the numerous action franchises (like “The Transporter” and “Taken”) that he helped shepherd as a writer/producer. Though many of Besson’s past movies have had shades of humor, this is the first one he’s helmed that could be described as a comedy. Adapted from Tonino Benacquista’s novel “Malavita” (renamed “Badfellas” for the English translation), “The Family” is a surprisingly funny fish-out-of-water tale that succeeds thanks to its excellent cast.
Robert De Niro stars as Giovanni Manzoni, a respected member of the New York mob who’s been in witness protection for the better part of the last decade after snitching on his mafia family. Unable to stay out of trouble wherever he goes, Giovanni is relocated to a small, quiet town in Normandy, France with his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and their two kids, Belle (Diane Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo). But before they’ve even unpacked, the incognito Blake family doesn’t waste any time in reverting to their old ways. Maggie blows up the local supermarket after being treated poorly by the staff; Belle teaches some horny teenagers a lesson in how to treat a woman; and Warren sets up several rackets at school. When Giovanni’s old mafia don is tipped off to their location by pure chance, however, a team of hitmen is sent to Normandy to exact revenge on him and his family mob-style.
If Tony Soprano had turned rat and been whisked away to Europe with Carmela and the kids, it would probably look a lot like “The Family,” a farcical homage to the mobster genre that’s played for darkly comical laughs, including a very meta moment involving a Martin Scorsese classic. The irony is also not lost on seeing De Niro and Pfeiffer return to their gangster roots after all these years, and though it isn’t the first time they’ve appeared in a movie together, it’s nice to see the veteran actors finally share the screen after failing to cross paths previously in “Stardust” or “New Year’s Eve.” With the exception of “Silver Linings Playbook,” this is the best that De Niro has been in a long time, and he really seems to be relishing his role. In fact, the only cast member who doesn’t appear to be enjoying himself is Tommy Lee Jones as the family’s FBI handler, with the actor practically sleepwalking through the film.
The movie is a tad ridiculous at times – especially the contrived manner in which the mafia learns of Giovanni’s whereabouts – but that’s to be expected from Besson, who excels at the absurd. (After all, this is the same guy that has managed to squeeze not one, but two sequels from “Taken,” and convinced Liam Neeson it was a good idea.) That absurdity is also where a lot of the script’s pitch-black humor is born, and it works for the most part thanks to the chemistry between the four leads. Though “The Family” isn’t as memorable as Besson’s 90s action films, it’s an enjoyable guilty pleasure that serves as a decent distraction ahead of the season’s more award-friendly fare.