If The Sopranos had ended with Tony turning informant and being whisked away into the witness protection program, The Family could have been a big-screen sequel to the TV show.
By RENE RODRIGUEZ
As the movie opens, Giovanni Monzani (Robert De Niro) is living under the alias Fred Blake in France with his wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and two kids, Warren (John DLeo) and Belle (Glees Dianna Agron). They are moving to a small town after being found out in their previous hideout on the French Riviera.
The children are complaining about the long road trip and the rank smell inside the car. Fred tells them they should have given their German shepherd a bath before they left. But a couple of scenes later, we find out about the corpse Fred stashed in the trunk. Once everyone has gone to sleep, he buries the body in the middle of nowhere.
That opening bit is strongly reminiscent of GoodFellas, one of the many movies director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, The Professional) references in sly, funny ways. Adapted from Tonino Benacquistas farcical novel Malavita, The Family is the rare breed of pitch-black comedy that uses violence seriously or comically, depending on the situation.
The Blakes are under the protective eye of a government agent (Tommy Lee Jones) who is increasingly exasperated by Freds refusal to behave. The former mobster finds a typewriter in the new house and decides to write his memoirs, recounting his criminal past in detail. Writing soothes him, fills his time.
But when a plumber tries to fleece him for repairs, he breaks the mans leg in seven places. And after he finds out the reason the tap water is brown is because of a nearby chemical processing plant, he builds a bomb.
Fred isnt the only member of the family with a killer instinct. When Maggie goes to the grocery store and overhears the owner trash-talking Americans in French, she pays for her items with a smile, then blows up the place on her way out. In high school, Warren quickly builds his own network of intimidation, exacting sweet and clever revenge on the kids who bullied him. (DLeo is terrific in the role, reminiscent of a teenage Joe Pesci who hasnt yet started stabbing people in the neck with a pen.) Belle is an even tougher cookie, doling out the hurt at some boys who think American girls are all tramps.
The Family is the first English-language movie Besson has directed since 1999s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, but he has written and produced a slew of action pictures in the meantime (Taken, The Transporter, Colombiana). This movie has a striking visual style, but Bessons primary focus is on his characters. He balances humor and drama with surgical precision, making us love this crazy family and fear for their safety. The movie is a cartoon, but the stakes are surprisingly real.
Pfeiffer gets to mine the menacing aspect of her beauty shes always seemed a little dangerous and De Niro, who lately has been going through the motions, seems fully engaged and excited by this role. Fred affords the actor an opportunity to strike a broad range of notes, including a wonderful sequence in which the movie enters meta-territory that would make Martin Scorsese cheer.
The Family climaxes with a suspenseful shootout that leaves a high body count and wracked nerves in its wake. But what you remember most are the funny bits and the unconditional love these twisted family members have for one another. The Addams have nothing on the Blakes. Just pray they dont move in next door.
DE NIRO SEASON
Robert De Niro may be playing a bunch of older guys, but he sure isnt slowing down. After The Family:
• Last Vegas (Nov. 1): He joins Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline in this comedy of men past their prime heading to Sin City for a bachelor party.
• Grudge Match (Dec. 25): The star of Raging Bull teams with the star of Rocky, Sylvester Stallone, to play aging boxers who climb back in the ring 50 years after their last bout.
• American Hustle (also Dec. 25): De Niro has a small part in this 1970s drama of con artists working with the Feds to take down corrupt politicians. Its from David O. Russell, who directed De Niro to an Oscar nomination in last years Silver Linings Playbook.
| Sharon Hoffmann, The Star