All Things Entertaining and Cultural
As I watched the opening scenes of Luc Besson’s wry and wicked movie, The Family, I was reminded of a story Mike Franzese, a made man who supplied State’s evidence about his career as a significant leader in the Colombo crime family, told at a dinner while promoting a six-part National Geographic Channel documentary about the New York mob in its pre-Rudy Giuliani heyday.
Franzese was filling up at a California gasoline station when a man from another car came over to tell him he forgot to turn off his engine before he began pumping. Franzese thanked the man, turned off his motor, and continued to pump. The man wasn’t happy with that. He asked Franzese why he left his car running and if he knew how dangerous it was and how polluting it could be. As the man goes on with a litany about the sins Franzese committed by failing to squelch his ignition, his wife arrives to join in the scolding. Franzese ends his story by saying, “That incident showed me how much I reformed.
“If I was still in mob mode, I would have taken the hose from my tank, doused the man and his wife with gasoline, and tossed a match towards them as I drove off giving them the finger.'”
The members of Besson’s “Blake” family, a group of four whisked off to France from Brooklyn as part of the U.S. government’s Witness Protection Program, show no such signs of reform or restraint. Led by Robert DeNiro as a trusted capo, who like Franzese, exposes his operation to the Feds, and Michelle Pfeiffer, whose accent is thick enough to rouse nostalgia for Ebbets Field, the Blakes have had to move repeatedly since their relocation to the land of brie, brioche, and cream sauce. The French continue to tick them off, and when they respond by a series of clever and satisfying retaliations (to them and the audience), their Federal watchdog, played with a witty combination of consternation and resignation by Tommy Lee Jones, has to transfer them in the dead of night to another remote but picturesque village until they are predictably maligned by their anti-American neighbors and just as predictably show what they think of their hosts, often using incineration or quick, firm knuckles to the nose to make their point.
The Blakes have more to worry about than the disdain of the French. A don that DeNiro’s character, Giovanni renamed Fred, informed on plots the Blakes’ demise from his cell in Attica, a cell that never has a locked door and is tended to by a guard who takes and relays orders from the still-powerful mob boss.
With all the mayhem, and potential for more, Besson keeps The Family a deliciously amoral and entertaining comedy. The Blakes may be devious, nefarious, and vengeful, but the Brooklyn and violence in them arises only when provoked. Only one in the movie, in a scene that involves a plumber, does the family’s reaction to haughtiness or more relaxed ways than their own, cause the audience to be critical. Besson succeeds, with the copious help of DeNiro, Pfeiffer, and Dianna Agron and John D’Leo as their lycee-terrorizing children, in making the Blakes likeable, and even delightful. They vicariously do the damage most of us would love to inflict on the annoying if fear of and/or respect for the law did not intervene. As I said, I can think of only one instance when the actual or fantasized comeuppance the Blakes heap on their latest Normandy town of refuge is not in some way warranted and satisfying.
Besson and his cast let you have fun and bask in amorality that, in lesser or more sentimental hands, would make you shudder. Even if you want to sympathize with the frustration Jones’s character experiences, or wonder why the government keeps the Blakes in France, you enjoy the Blakes’ inability to reform and their casual, conscienceless talent for wreaking havoc. Conscience may make cowards of most of us, but it is not part of the Blakes’ DNA.
Except for the son, Warren, played by D’Leo, the Blakes would enjoy fitting in if given the chance. Warren wants to be a high school racketeer and get his piece of the cigarette and drug trade, but Pfeiffer’s Maggie would just as soon cook pasta and other traditional Italian meals if she could only get the ingredients she needs at French markets, where the people make fun of her for requesting simple items the French, accordingly to The Family, do not stock, items that include peanut butter, the mention of which send the French roaring in laughter or haranguing with disgust.
Upon finding a typewriter, DeNiro’s Fred begins to have fun writing his memoirs, a tome that gives Jones’s agent apoplexy when he comes across them. DeNiro’s pose as a writer takes a different comic turn when a village intellectual asks Fred to debate with him about the merits of an American film, Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running, and the company supplying the Minnelli print, sends Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas by mistake. Fred takes pleasure in regaling his rapt and appreciative audience about the authenticity in the Scorsese classic, again to Jones’s sighing and funny dismay. Scorsese is The Family’s executive producer, and you see his meticulous hand in the color quality and other production values.
Fred and Maggie’s daughter, Belle, played by Agron, wants to have a teenage romance and commune easily with the villagers her age. Alas, she like the rest of her family, is thwarted. The one sequence of genuine human concern in The Family involves Belle and her reaction to an actually wounding slight.
Of course , we are made to care about the Blakes and their pursuit by the Attica don, but while Besson creates suspense and tension in scenes where the Blakes are threatened, he also keeps the tone comic.
For all of the chaos and the generally unflattering look Besson provides of humankind, The Family remains airy and enjoyable. It may not be a work of art, or an important film, but it provides mischievous entertainment and does so with cunning style and naughty wit. From the beginning, the clever theme music by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine tells you you’re in for a good, if dark, time.
DeNiro’s appearance is remarkable in that he can look like his younger self in flashback scenes while being the epitome of a crusty French provincial in his long gray locks and bushy beard for the Normandy passages. The Family is an example of DeNiro taking it easy. He and his character are always in command, comfortable in their skin and amused by the world around him. Fred remains amused even when incidents upsets him, because he is so confident he, as Giovanni or Fred, can get even.
Pfeiffer looks as if she is having as much fun as DeNiro. Although Maggie has more of an edge than Fred, and is less tolerant of the brush-off she gets from the French, Pfeiffer exudes the aura of Brooklyn cool. She may be ruffled, but she won’t be daunted. Of all the performers, Pfeiffer has the most chances to convey various moods and attitudes, and she does so naturally without ever quite losing the comic tone Besson imparts.
John D’Leo is perfect as the adolescent who takes pride in his badness. The great part about D’Leo’s performance is he never comes across like a punk or a con man. He’s more the sharp-eyed cool kid who might look vulnerable but is not to be tested. Dianne Agron provides texture, as Belle, who while hiding, and even while getting revenge, is going through all of the ordeals inherent to a 17-year-old girl whether she’s Brooklyn or in France. The opposite of her brother, Belle looks uninterested about most things, including her surroundings, but can be totally vulnerable.
Jones is smart and funny, as Jones, in a comic part, invariably is.