From the opening scene in which a mobster and his wife and two children are gunned down in cold blood at the dinner table, The Family tries very hard to be a comedy with a jagged edge. But there isn’t a single genuinely sharp sequence in the entire movie. The casting of Robert De Niro as an ex-Mafioso hiding in witness protection is witty in only the silliest, most superficial way. It’s a joke with its own tinny, built-in laugh track.
It doesn’t help that the actor looks so pained to be revisiting the same old wise-guy shtick. As a character, De Niro’s Giovanni Manzoni is thinner than a strand of angel hair pasta: He’s a ruthless killer who’s also a devoted family man. Where a great piece of pulp art like The Sopranos dives headfirst into such a murky moral contradiction, The Family stays safely in shallow water. Nothing here is complicated at all: We’re supposed to root for Giovanni unequivocally, not in spite of his hair-trigger temper and propensity for brutally mauling anybody who disappoints him, but because of it. Stashed in Normandy with his resentful brood, he’s the ultimate Ugly American, a facile and familiar stereotype in search of a satirical perspective.
Besson, whose cult hit The Professional (1994) focused on a French hit man plying his trade in New York, isn’t a supple enough filmmaker to make sophisticated cultural observations. The best he can do is lob cheap shots, such as the scene in which Giovanni’s wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), nostalgically and patriotically pigs out on a Royale with Cheese at the local McDonald’s. Elsewhere, the humour is literally bludgeoning: the Manzonis’ teenaged daughter (Dianna Agron) teaches some local lotharios a lesson by beating their faces in with a tennis racket, while her younger brother Warren (John D’Leo) masterminds a group beatdown of the school bully.
This supposedly endearing slapstick is just a prelude to the brutal violence that erupts when Giovanni’s former associates, who have been looking for him for the entire movie, finally decamp to France to punish him for violating their clan’s omerta. It’s a running gag that Giovanni can’t keep his mouth shut: In addition to his past snitching, he wants to write a tell-all autobiography about his adventures in the underworld. When he gets invited to the local cinematheque to talk about Goodfellas, he ignores the advice of his CIA handler (Tommy Lee Jones) and starts picking apart the movie’s authenticity. Giovanni’s reward for rambling on is a standing ovation from the appreciative crowd. Somewhere in the audio mix, you can hear the sound of a desperate director applauding his own cleverness.