De Niro’s Self-Parody

family13f-5-webAfter seeing Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook last year, I was hopeful that he had turned a corner. Once considered the great actor of his generation, for almost twenty years, he had been mostly phoning it in. But in Silver Linings Playbook, he worked his ass off. He was subtle, sweet, sympathetic, and I immediately thought he would get attention from awards at the end of the year; he did, and was nominated for an Oscar for the seventh time. But then I saw The Family, and he had returned to self-parody. And I don’t mean that he’s happy to be typecast as an Italian-American tough guy and just recreate expressions and noises from Raging Bull or The Godfather, Part II, though he’s done this a couple dozen times.

In Luc Besson’s new mob comedy The Family, he plays Giovanni Manzoni, a vicious mobster in witness protection in Normandy, France, who passes himself off as writer. In comic irony, the locals think Gio is an intellectual of some sort, and they ask him to discuss The Harder They Come at the local film society. The movie turns out to be Goodfellas, one of De Niro’s greatest roles, and Gio earns rapturous applause after telling the crowd all about mob life in the United States. This is supposed to be moment of meta-comedy, but it was more successful at reminding me not only how derivative The Family was, but also how far De Niro has fallen.

The Family’s plot is pretty simple. Giovanni has sold out his criminal associates and the FBI has put him and his family in witness protection in France. The beginning of the film has them arriving in Normandy after being forced to leave the south of France for drawing too much notice for such things as killing a local shopkeeper, exploding grocery stores, and the like. The family is now called the Blakes. Gio is Fred, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) is Fred’s wife, and their children are Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo). While Gio/Fred’s former associates look for him and his family, the Blakes try to fit in with the rural French. Though he’s actually writing a mob memoir, Gio tells the neighbors he is writing book about D-Day, which he knows nothing about. Worse, whenever someone tells him something he doesn’t want to hear, he beats them to a broken, bloody pulp.

Maggie wants to fit in and be liked, but her mafia temper gets in the way; she blows up a grocery store after overhearing the owner and a couple of old French ladies trashing Americans. Belle is a gorgeous high school student, but when she’s crossed, she is her parents’ daughter; she beats a flirtatious boy with a tennis racket and a girl who steals her pencil case with her fists. Warren is a young up-and-coming mobster, running extortion and contraband rackets, as well as beating his enemies with the aplomb of his family. The FBI agents tasked with watching over the Blakes are clueless about just how evil their charges are. Tommy Lee Jones seems to have an inkling but he doesn’t seem to care too much. The Blakes penchant for violence does come in handy when the American mobsters come to kill them.

While De Niro’s performance is a boring rehash of Analyze This, Pfeiffer, Agron, and D’Leo do not embarrass themselves. Despite the methods they use to deal with their problems, both Maggie and Agron are somewhat sympathetic characters, mostly because of how good they communicate their frustration and anxiety prior to beating the crap out of people. As Warren, D’Leo is a cute little demon. Unfortunately, none of them have much to work with because Besson and Michael Caleo’s script is not just uninspired but tonally confusing. The violence was too vicious and too undeserved to be funny, and throughout the film, the rhythm of both the acting and directing erratically wavered between comic, dramatic, and suspenseful. I was never certain what I was supposed to feel. It seemed like Besson was lost. The man who gave us the great thrillers La Femme Nikita, The Professional, and The Fifth Element would be the last person I’d want to direct a mob comedy. And De Niro should never do another.

The Family
Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson and Michael Caleo
Starring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Dianna Agron
Rated R
At your local multiplex


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