Editor’s Notes: The Family is now open in wide release. For an additional perspective on the film, please read Kevin’s review.
Amongst cinephiles, there is the idea of the “lifetime pass” when it comes to different directors: that a director makes a film so incredible, that if they go years, or even decades, without producing something as good or even close, that one film is enough to keep said director in a film lover’s good graces. For example, Apollo 13 is enough for me to give Ron Howard a lifetime pass. The same can be said for French filmmaker Luc Besson with Léon: The Professional. While he’s made his living in the last decade with producing the Taken and Transporter films, his tale of a hit man taking in an orphaned girl who wants to avenge her younger brother from the crooked DEA agent who slaughtered her family was one of the best films of 1994. It launched his career state-side, gave Jean Reno a much deserved starring role and introduced us to Natalie Portman who grew up in front of our eyes to become one of the best leading ladies in film today. Because of this, we waited with baited breath for a follow up film with equal power. Instead we got diminishing returns. From The Fifth Element to Angel-A (I still haven’t seen The Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec), the enjoyability factor of Besson’s films had gradually declined. So imagine my surprise when I saw his latest, The Family, and was pleasantly surprised by it. While not containing the emotional punch Léon gave us, this is Besson’s most enjoyable and highly entertaining film in an extremely long time.
The film follows “Fred Blake” (Robert DeNiro), a former Mob boss who is in Witness Protection with his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and two teenage kids Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Lio). In the dead of night, they move to Normandy, the latest in a long line of locations in France that they’ve been forced to move to for one reason or another. As Maggie tries to integrate within the town, Belle tries to seduce a sexy substitute teacher and Warren quickly establishes his own racket within the high school. Fred begins writing his memoirs while also dealing with the local bureaucracy as he tries to clean up the running brown water. On top of that, he deals with regular interruptions from Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), their FBI handler who has to relocate them every 90 days. And after seeing each of the Blake family members in action, it’s not hard to understand his barely concealed irritation with Fred.
Right from the beginning with its fast pace, expert exposition and witty dialogue and characterizations, you are strapped in for a darkly comedic ride that does not let up in the slightest. The humor lies within the fact that for a family that knows it has to stay under cover and keep everything intact, they can barely conceal their psychotic natures and rage over the slights they encounter on a regular basis. Make no mistake, these are horrible people doing horrible things, but only when provoked. If you managed to get through the entirety of The Sopranos without laughing once, then this is clearly not the film for you.
Relatively minor complaints don’t detract from the film’s fast pace, great characters and cartoony black humor.
While some would decry this film as De Niro once again resting on his laurels and just phoning it in, I respectfully disagree. As we see him throughout the film in shorts and a bathrobe with flat, stringy hair and a scraggly beard, Fred is a man who once commanded power but now is out to pasture and beyond the point of caring. He writes his memoirs as an obvious confession, not caring if it gets out, if only just to set his obviously biased record straight. But really, it’s the entire cast that shines. Pfeiffer proves that even at 55, she is so goddamn sexy and an acting force to be reckoned with. Agron strips away any memories of Glee as a teenage girl who, while vulnerable enough to fall for the pains of first love, is more than capable of taking care of herself. The real surprise is D’Lio who makes you believe that this fourteen-year-old is capable of setting up his own crime syndicate in record time. And Tommy Lee Jones, while still looking like he’d rather be somewhere else, at least has great chemistry with De Niro throughout the film.
As for the film’s faults, while the tone establishes right away that this is a film not to be taken too seriously, the way in which the family’s cover is blown that brings the remaining Mob members to hunt down the Blakes really strains credulity. And a meta joke involving De Niro at a film club, while it works, does feel really on the nose. And with two Sopranos actors in the mix, the fact that Besson barely does anything with them is a bit of a disappointment. But these are relatively minor complaints that doesn’t detract from the film’s fast pace, great characters and cartoony black humor, all of which adds up to Besson’s best work since Léon.
[notification type=”star”]75/100 ~ GOOD. While not containing the emotional punch of Léon, The Family is Besson’s most enjoyable and highly entertaining film in an extremely long time.[/notification]