*SPOILER ALERT!!! – for those who haven’t seen the movie, this review contains spoilers)*
– Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones
*Judita’s Score: 6/10 *
– Now, Robert De Niro is not a name that is synonymous with comedy. I remember the universal clenching that occurred when it was first announced that Mr De Niro would be starring in a comedy called Analyse This. Much to our shock and pleasure it was a hit. To use an actor like Robert De Niro in a comedy you have to be very careful and very clever. You either go down the black comedy route or you go down the comedy by circumstance route (a la Analyse This). I understand the appeal of casting De Niro in a comedy … wait … who am I trying to kid? I understand the appeal of casting De Niro in anything but we’ll be focusing on the comedy genre in this context. Those you least expect to be funny can potentially provide the biggest laughs because it is so unexpected. However, one has to be a particularly good director to know how to do this with an actor as formidable as De Niro and formidable for a particular brand of acting.
In my humble opinion Robert De Niro does not strike me as an actor that a director should ask to be out-and-out, unleash a drum fill after the punch line, funny. To get that to work you would have to always have a darkness to the plot driving that comedy, in other words something like Martin Scorsese’s ‘King of Comedy’. The easier and safer route to travel is to build an environment/plot with a pre-disposition for creating potentially amusing situations, (i.e. comedy by circumstance) and situate De Niro in the middle of it. It would then be that matter of fact nature that De Niro has juxtaposed with the environment he finds himself in that creates comedy gold. I think Luc Besson managed to do just this in The Family with Robert De Niro playing Fred Blake, or more accurately Giovanni Manzoni in hiding.
As far as writing goes, it was strong. A nice balance of comedy and drama that doesn’t insist you take it too seriously but still manages to make an impression. The comical set pieces are well timed and not overworked, as is often the practice in Hollywood movies. It feels like Besson is satisfied if he only makes you chuckle lightly to yourself. He does not belabour the point in the hope of extracting roars of laughter, which enables the movie to stay on rhythm. The writing is also amusingly cutting because it manages to make very inappropriate things like murder and cursing the source of a number of scenes that are nothing short of hilarious. For instance, there is a scene where Robert De Niro’s character’s son Warren, played by John D’Leo, has an entire monologue dedicated to explaining his father’s unique talent for expressing a whole range of emotions with just the word “Fuck”. This is intercut with clips of Giovanni’s varied “Fuck” applications. Now why I say the writing is good is because the way this is done does not drive you to that point where your ears go numb from profanity overload. Instead it has you in stitches because the timing of the cutaways next to Warren’s speech gives that effect. Kudos!
I must say the thing I enjoyed most about this film has to be Michelle Pfeiffer. She is deliciously entertaining and plays the emotionally tried, fiery tempered, occasional arsonist to perfection; all the while maintaining the typical Brooklyn idiosyncrasies of the bella mafia. As for the rest of the cast, Robert De Niro and Tommy Lee Jones were predictably good as their roles were not much of a stretch from how we often see them on screen. Please don’t think that means I am sneering at predictability, not at all. In a fading pool of real talent in Hollywood these days, there is something to be cherished in actors like these; Actors that just by confirming their participation in the film you guarantee a high level of quality. The prize for the uncovered gem though has to go to John D’Leo. He has screen presence and charisma and his small frame serves well as a contradiction to his ballsy demeanour. Dianna Agron unfortunately left much to be desired and was quite one dimensional. Even from her days in Glee I have always found her performances to have an intrinsic stiffness about them. She seems unwilling or incapable of letting herself truly go and committing to the moment or the emotion she is trying to capture on screen. It is a shame because she had the ammunition available to potentially be great in this film.
I also have to mention the laughs to be gotten from watching the Blakes’ family pet. Their dog is one of a breed commonly known for being fierce and therefore well suited to security and law enforcement. However it seems a life as witness to Giovanni’s murderous activities has somehow managed to render this particular dog tame and borderline mute! Has to be seen to be appreciated.
I particularly liked some of the soundtrack choices made in The Family. The music lends itself well to the tone of the movie as a whole, complimenting it at times and contrasting it at others. Soundtracks can enhance, control and even steer a film, if applied with skill. In this one there is an added layer of character to the soundtrack. It often participates in the comedy itself. There is a scene where a group of mafia hit men arrive on a train to the remote town the Blakes/Manzonis have been hiding in, to kill Giovanni. It is shot as a tense and dramatic scene that has Warren in tears of fear as he sees them and realises who they are. The tension is built, the drama is right there and all of a sudden the music steps in as though cracking an inappropriate joke at a funeral. As the camera cuts away from Warren and back to the hit men as they step off the train, they do so to the Gorillaz song “Clint Eastwood” and all I could do was laugh out loud. Sorry LOL!!! Camera, characters and soundtrack are each playing an equal but separate part and they are tied together to very amusing effect. This style of direction employed by Luc Besson that injects comedy at the most inappropriate times, in an attempt to make it all the more comical is often unsuccessful. Thankfully, as was the case with movies like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Besson got the balance write and The Family can now join that list.
Judita’s summary: For all the positives I have listed in this review I can still only score it as I did above. The reason I am not scoring it higher is because it is not exactly going to make it into the annuals of history as an all-time classic. The film is funny, it is well made and it is entertaining so it does not disappoint but it won’t rock the foundations of filmmaking. It is a couple of hours well spent, if you have got them to spare, beyond that you best look elsewhere.