Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones
Directed by: Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”)
Written by: Luc Besson (“Taken”) and Michael Caleo (“The Last Time”)
When the critically acclaimed “Silver Linings Playbook” came out last year, many film fans were enthused about the performance and presence of Robert De Niro. It wasn’t just that De Niro turned in his best performance in years, but it was that he did such in a great project. For the better part of the past decade, De Niro has been a perpetual enemy of positive critical consensus, turning in performances in poorly received “Meet the Parents” sequels and various action films. Though De Niro has already had one of the most poorly received films of the year thus far with “The Big Wedding,” his next starring vehicle, “The Family,” is another test to see if his Oscar-nominated performance in “Playbook” was an aberration or a sign of things to come for an actor in desperate need of a career resurgence.
As part of the witness protection program, mafia boss Fred Manzoni (De Niro), his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and their kids Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo) are forced to move to a quiet, low-key town in France. While there, the family can’t seem to avoid attracting attention and are eventually tracked down by a mob boss looking to settle a score.
As far as performances go, everyone in the cast does a fine job. De Niro slips back into a mobster role well enough, and the supporting cast like Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones (as a federal agent) and kids turn in effortful performances. The problem, however, lies in the way the characters are written and their complete lack of depth. De Niro’s character in particular seems to be going through an identity crisis with the adjustment of being out of the mob, but the idea of him writing his memoirs goes absolutely nowhere other than the serve as a narrative device for the film and to inform a bit on the past.
But the poor writing and lack of character depth is more complex than that. The children, who are now used to being bounced around from country to country, are shown at school doing various aggressive things, but without reason or explanation other than their ties of having a mafia leader as a father. There’s really no purpose Warren, for example, tries control the school through various forms of intimidation. An even bigger disservice is done to the character played by Agron. She is presented as a strong, tough, badass girl who in early scenes beats an aggressive fellow student with a tennis racquet. But later in the film, she is given a typical female storyline where her emotions are put in check when she falls head over heels in love with a guy. This of course completely undoes most of the strong and independent characteristics established at the beginning of the film.
For what it’s worth, the film sticks to a consistent tone balancing violence (mostly implied rather than graphic) with black comedy. The problem is that the comedy is not funny in the slightest. The jokes – mostly centered on De Niro’s aggressive imagination – never quite click. There’s also an abundance of typical Italian mobster stereotypes, which, while never offensive, are extremely obnoxious.
When all is said and done, “The Family” is a film that accomplishes none of its goals. The humor falls short, the violence is ineffective, and the characters are stripped of their memorability by a hackneyed script. For the time being, it appears that De Niro’s full-time career comeback is on hold.