When it sticks to playing things strictly for outlandish laughs, the mob comedy “The Family” manages to be reasonably enjoyable — primarily because of the heavy hitters in the cast.
Unfortunately, writer/director Luc Besson, a brilliant filmmaker when he wants to be, having directed “The Fifth Element,” “The Professional” and “La Femme Nikita” among others notables, has a little trouble establishing the tone here. The extreme violence in the film (of which there is no shortage) is supposed to comical, at least on some level, yet the very first scene features a hit man murdering an entire family in cold blood — then cutting off the father’s finger. Hilarious, it is not.
The family the guy is looking for belongs to Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro), a former Brooklyn mob boss who has ratted out his old pals and gone into hiding in the federal witness protection program. And we’re not talking the low-rent variety of witness protection. Gio, now known as Fred Blake, has been relocated to France with his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), his son Warren (John D’Leo) and his daughter Belle (Dianna Agron of “Glee”). First to Paris, then somewhere on the Riviera, and now they’re headed for a quaint little village in Normandy. The problem being that the Manzonis still deal with life’s little frustrations the way they always have: with assault, destruction of property and murder. And they don’t react well when they encounter the typical French disdain and disrespect for Americans.
That’s not the world’s most inspired comic premise, but it’s not bad. And Besson makes it work reasonably well when he limits himself to Gio fantasizing about beating his new neighbors to a pulp at a get-acquainted barbecue party.
It’s another story, though, when Gio actually batters a crooked plumber with a baseball bat and a sledgehammer. Or when he kidnaps a shady factory exec responsible for polluting the village’s water supply, ties him to his car and drags him out of town. Not because of the pollution thing, but because the poor guy made the mistake of interrupting him.
We’re supposed to find this likeable, even admirable (and amusing of course), partly because the violence isn’t quite brutal enough to be taken seriously (though it’s close) and partly because Gio is presented as a devoted husband and father and therefore, basically, a good guy. And the same goes for Maggie, Warren and Belle when they turn the tables on villagers unlucky enough to pick on them — though they also tend to go to extremes. When employees and customers at the local supermarket snicker at Maggie’s request for peanut butter, for example, she burns the place to the ground.
Well, okay, that’s funny. But it’s a little hard to know how to react when a high-school creep tries to put some unwanted moves on Belle (who has clearly inherited her dad’s psychotically violent streak) and she beats him half to death with a tennis racket.
The same is true when “The Family” decides to get serious, first with Belle suffering a genuine heartbreak and next when the mob finally catches up with them —and Besson shifts into no-kidding action-adventure mode pitting the Manzonis against a small army of hit men.
Whether it’s played for comedy or not, the basic lesson is the same: for the Manzonis, violence solves everything. Even if, in the end, world-weary FBI agent Tommy Jones (who has a few nice scenes with De Niro) has to pack them up and move them someplace else to start over again.
Wherever that is, we can only hope there won’t be a sequel.