The Family is definitely one of the oddest films released this year. Not that the dark action comedy is too arty and aloof for its own good. It’s just that by the time the credits roll, the overwhelming sense generated by the movie is one of pointlessness. The Family is way too long, the eventual pay-off is too abrupt and for huge portions of the film you feel very uncomfortable laughing at the very brutal, very graphic antics of its central characters.
The overarching problem is that The Family seems to be, on the whole, too “realistic” for its own good. The Fifth Element certainly proved that writer-producer-director Luc Besson can do cartoonish when he wants. In The Family though, when a good dollop of over-the-top would have been welcome, things are kept grounded for the most part – and this complicates audience feelings.
You see it’s hard to root for the “heroes” when the retribution they dish out for being treated disrespectfully far exceeds the scale of the slight they received. Although some audience members at my screening were clearly entertained, I couldn’t chuckle at the sight of a girl’s face being smashed in for stealing a pencil case, and a tardy plumber having his limbs broken with a baseball bat AND then a sledgehammer.
For the record, The Family – based on the French novel Malavita by Tonino Benacquista – centres on a prominent New York mobster (Robert De Niro) who is in the Witness Protection Programme after ratting on his former colleagues. His wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and teenage children (Dianna Agron and John D’Leo) are in tow. None of the family is particularly content with their new life, especially since they are forced to change towns and identities virtually every three months. The audience meets the “The Blakes” as they are settling into a small village in Normandy while their exasperated FBI handler Tommy Lee Jones looks on.
Of course, the mobster family can’t resist their urges for intimidation, revenge and racketeering. This catches the attention of the Mafia authorities, who send in a heavily armed hit squad to exterminate the Blakes. And that’s pretty much it.
The Family isn’t without its laugh-out loud moments. There are maybe a handful of them. But God, the two-hour film just goes on and on. And the inevitable revenge attack, when it does happen, seems to be squashed into the final ten minutes of the film when it could have been a far more gratifying, extended R.E.D. or Die Hard-esque sequence, with the whole family chipping in to overcome their enemies. There are flashes of this, but not enough.
The weird thing is that in the midst of these missed opportunities, there are some particularly convincing performances. The best scenes in the film involve the family at the dinner table. Despite how the Blakes perpetually complicate the audience’s feelings towards them, there is an admirable warmth and unity among them. Ignoring how they frequently treat people outside their inner circle, they clearly love and will do anything for each other. And that is exceptionally unusual in movies these days.
For the record – and you may claim bias here – it’s Michelle Pfeiffer’s character who emerges as the most “normal” and likeable of the lot, mostly because we don’t see her beating the shit out of people. Trading on her natural affability, her matriarch is hell-bent on keeping her family happy and healthy, and has a special gift for winning fondness even from her enemies.
It’s just that in the end, there’s no ignoring the explosive, psychopathic brutality of the Blakes. No amount of tears and hugs can balance that out, or make their actions vaguely fun. The Family concludes and there’s no escaping an overwhelming sense of “so what?” Despite the talent involved in the film – including Martin Scorsese as Executive Producer, The Family just doesn’t feel like a movie that needed to be made at all.
Last Updated: November 6, 2013