'The Family' is dysfunctional, but not funny

05:00 AM, Sep 13, 2013

Michelle Pfeiffer, left, Robert De Niro, Dianna Agron and John D'Leo star as a Mob family in the witness protection program in the new comedy 'The Family.' Jessica Ford, Relativity Media/


Written By by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

The Family is a fish-out-of-water/buddy comedy/Mob flick. But most of all, it’s a missed opportunity.

The bad pacing, humorless scenarios and repetitive gags (** out of four; rated R; opens Friday nationwide) undercut the few inspired moments, most of which hinge on the chemistry between Robert De Niro’s Mob boss and Tommy Lee Jones’ FBI agent.

There’s comic potential in the story of a powerful wise guy, his wife and two kids who are globe-trotting under cover in the witness protection program and grappling with everyday life. As the movie opens the family is moving to a Normandy village (where inexplicably everyone speaks nearly perfect English). Their Brooklyn roots and tendency to solve problems with violence and fits of pique are meant to be funny. But most of it falls flat.

The movie, based on the comic action novel Malavita by Tonino Benacquista, not-so-slyly nods to previous De Niro movies: He plays Giovanni Manzoni, aka Fred Blake, a Mafioso patriarch with anger-management issues which, in better moments, bring to mind Analyze This. He can’t handle being contradicted, interrupted or taken for a fool. Those who attempt such things might pay with their lives.

Posing as a peripatetic American writer, Blake is asked to speak to a gathering about American movies by a local teacher. The movie he’s asked to discuss? Goodfellas, which starred De Niro. Blake discusses the premise, then vividly offers details for one of the film’s best scenes.

Giovanni/Blake is married to devout but hot-tempered Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer). Her gangster’s wife character references her role in the comedy Married to the Mob. The couple has a pair of tough, savvy teens, Belle (Dianna Agron), 17, and Warren (John D’Leo), 14. Despite the earnest efforts of FBI Agent Stansfield (Jones) to ensure the family is integrated into the community, the four Blakes can’t seem to behave.

This is a mean-spirited dark comedy with plenty of gore and a disturbingly high body count. Innocent people are slaughtered in passing. Though Maggie seems to speak minimal French, she somehow understands a raft of derogatory comments that grocery store workers make about the eating habits of Americans. As she grows more incensed she impulsively sets fire to the store.

Director Luc Besson’s action-movie sensibilities have drowned out any subtlety that co-writer Michael Caleo (The Sopranos) might have brought to the project. The film might have included funnier culture clashes, but instead, it goes for obvious gags and running jokes that fall flat.

The plot is awkwardly contrived and gratuitously violent, but much could be forgiven if the result were funnier. Last year’s Seven Psychopaths deftly blended mayhem, offbeat characters and sharp dialogue to absurdly inventive comic effect.

But a visit with The Family feels stale and played-out.