(by Dustin Putman
A family brutally assassinated while having breakfast, "Martyrs"-style. A plumber who is assaulted within an inch of his life for being late to a house call. A teenage boy beat to a pulp with a tennis racket for making a move on a female classmate. A grocery store's inhabitants blown sky-high for uttering a few passive-aggressive xenophobic comments. A guy fantasizing about shoving a sizzling poker of charcoal in a neighbor's mouth. A man tied to the back of a truck and, in true hate-crime fashion, dragged until he's critically injured. These descriptions are not in reference to a torture-heavy horror flick, but that of 2013's most rancidly mean-spirited comedy, a film that gives "A Haunted House" and "Movie 43" a run for their dirty money. Tone-deaf, painfully unfunny, and leading up to a black hole of pointlessness, "The Family" is one of those woebegone studio pictures starring A-list talent, directed by an established filmmaker, and so very misguided one cannot begin to fathom how any of them agreed to be involved with the project. Article continues below
Brooklynites Fred (Robert De Niro) and Maggie Blake (Michelle Pfeiffer), along with 17-year-old Belle (Dianna Agron) and 14-year-old Warren (John D'Leo), have just moved to a French town near Normandy. They might seem at first glance like a typical American family who have traveled abroad, but in actuality they're the Manzonis, in witness protection after mob boss Fred squealed on an organized crime syndicate in exchange for his immunity. Despite regular visits from FBI agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), assigned to check on them, old habits definitely die hard for this family. As Fred settles down to write his memoirs and Maggie starts visiting church during off hours to pray for their sins, Belle falls for her handsome, college-aged math tutor and Warren begins an illicit prescription drug ring at their high school. If anyone wrongs the Manzonis—or so much as looks at them funny—it's a safe bet they'll soon end up dead, or needing a hospital. When their whereabouts are suddenly compromised, a group of thugs out for revenge come calling.
"The Family" was directed by Luc Besson (2013's "The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec"), he and co-writer Michael Caleo adapting the novel, "Malavita," by Tonino Benacquista. How could they have so vastly missed the mark? Tediously directionless until the last twenty or so minutes, the film meanders along while treating its quartet of lead characters as if they are effervescent charmers the viewer should flock to, laugh at, and grow to care about. Besson fails on all three counts. When a kindly priest (Christopher Craig) agrees to give Maggie confession, his response to hearing her horror stories is rash yet pretty accurate: "Your family is the incarnation of evil!" It is hard to disagree, what with flashbacks to Fred dipping a victim into a canister of corrosive acid and scenes establishing that every one of the family members is capable of vicious, unsympathetic violence and even murder. It is touched upon that Belle is hoping to find a way to leave behind her illustrious past, but this mini-subplot is dropped as quickly as it is brought up. Otherwise, none of them have anything approaching a proper character arc and, as a unit, are given precious few chances to actual gel as an authentic, close-knit family. When Belle tells her father that he's the best dad a girl could hope for as the self-serious piano score starts playing away in the background, one is not touched, but left to wonder what possibly makes him such a good parent. He barely interacts with his kids at all and, because of his criminal lifestyle, has put them and his wife in severe danger.
The strong cast, predictably, are no match for the offensively bad script they have to work with. Robert De Niro (2013's "The Big Wedding") is uninteresting as patriarch Giovanni Manzoni/Fred Blake, acting much of the time as if he was parachuted into shots just before director Luc Besson rolled the camera. As wife Maggie, Michelle Pfeiffer (2012's "People Like Us") tries a little harder, but keeps forgetting her pesky Brooklyn accent. As daughter Belle, Dianna Agron (2011's "I Am Number Four") is saddled with an erratic role that is tough to figure out, but under the circumstances she might give the picture's best performance. A late scene where she narrowly escapes with her life and lets out a scream in both relief and frustration is the most honest moment in all of the film's interminable 111 minutes. John D'Leo (2012's "Wanderlust") is okay as son Warren, but decidedly bland. Finally, Tommy Lee Jones (2012's "Hope Springs") walks through his screen time as if he'd rather be anyplace else. He probably knew he was in a turkey, but was more than happy to get paid for his grumpy-faced services.
The kind of dingbat-brained movie where a house explodes and the person inside is catapulted into the front yard underneath some rubble without a scratch on him, "The Family" is, quite frankly, a disgrace. It is not meant to be a spoof like 1998's "Mafia!," yet features occurrences that could only conceivably be bought in a total self-referential fantasy. Vying for attention, however, is a grave dramatic undercurrent where people are mutilated and shot to death while actors play their parts half the time like teary-eyed tragedy. Toss in an underage affair, an exploitative almost-suicide that comes ridiculously out of nowhere, and a cloying meta moment where De Niro attends a screening of "Goodfellas," and "The Family" is all over the place—and not in a positive way. The finished output is so terrible it is angering, and then almost more enraging because there is about five minutes in the third act that work up a fine layer of suspense as if it's from an entirely different picture. Baffled by what it wants to be, the warring mood shifts in the ugly-souled "The Family" end up canceling each other out. It's just as well. This is easily one of the most fatally off-putting releases of the year.