The Manzoni Family fits into their European surroundings better than the Griswold Family did back in the ‘80s, but they are still on the same in of the horrible American spectrum. They may live in Normandy but lucky for them, almost all encounters are automatically conducted in English, even in the local French school. Also, if something does not go their way either in the grocery store or with the local plumber, they may always employ over-the-top violence, frequently with explosives, to fix the problem.
Former mafia boss Giovanni Manzoni, now known as Fred Blake (Robert De Niro), snitched on all of his comrades and fled into the arms of the witness protection program with his family. They hit the protection jackpot because instead of settling somewhere like North Dakota or New Mexico, they have been to Paris, the French Riviera, and now a small village in Normandy. Of course, the Blakes endure this as the worst punishment in the world; what kind of alleged comedy would this be if they calmly acclimated to their surroundings?
Wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) wanders the town for groceries, makes friends with the local priest, and buddies up to the FBI agents across the street who run constant surveillance on the family. Daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) is 17 and experiences some sort of sexual awakening when she encounters the local math tutor while 14-year-old Warren (John D’Leo) immediately breaks into the local black market and sets himself up as the high school’s Don Corleone.
The Family is a ridiculous farce. Robert De Niro’s mafia don persona in the witness protection program is supposed to be amusing but he comes off way more violent than perhaps he was meant to be. The movie even tries for ‘funny’ violence like dragging a guy behind a car to get him to talk or killing the local butcher because he tried to cheat you with some lobsters. Seriously, Robert De Niro kills a guy for selling him some rotten lobsters. Michelle Pfeiffer, using a horrible Italian/Brooklyn accent at times, blows up a small grocery store because some French folk mock her.
The gruesome violence the Manzonis/Blakes inflict upon the local French villagers is almost cartoonish – as is the body count. So many folk go missing or end up in the hospital with life threatening injuries it is hard to believe the gendarmes don’t show up with a tank and a bulldozer to drive these crazy Americans out of town. Fred tells his neighbors he is a writer, finds an old typewriter, and starts to scribble his memoirs. This is the trick to let us know some of his backstory as he narrates it to us as the screen fades to flashback. He explains how nice of a gangster he was but almost of all of his examples involves shooting someone, beating them with a baseball bat, or even dipping them headfirst into a barrel of acid.
It would be easy to say this is not up to writer/director Luc Besson’s usual standard (The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional); however, the style of The Family is now his new low expectation (From Paris with Love, Lockout, Taken 2). Jack Black said it best in High Fidelity, “Is it far to judge a formerly great artist for his latter day sins; is it better to burn out than to fade away?” The Family is another slide downhill for Besson. The film is allegedly a comedy, but it is starkly unfunny. This family comes off as just a bunch of thugs. Each person finds their respective outlet, be it in writing, religion, love, or the black market, but it does not change the fact that it wouldn’t be so awful if the mafia goons still chasing them finally tracked them down and saved what is left of the rural French population.
Directed by: Luc Besson
Written by: Luc Besson, Michael Caleo, Tonino Benacquista
Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D'Leo, Tommy Lee Jones, Jimmy Palumbo, Vincent Pastore