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‘The Family’ has its moments, but is never superlative

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Written by Tonino Benacquista, Luc Besson, and Michael Caleo
Directed by Luc Besson
USA/France, 2013

The famed French director Luc Besson hasn’t directed a film with a wide American release since the historic bomb The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc in 1999. In the interim, he has written and produced a number of highly successful films including The Transporter, Taken, and District B13, and he’s directed a few French films that haven’t come across the pond, but The Family is his first attempt at ¬†directing an English-language film in almost 15 years. He’s still got it to some degree, for The Family is acceptably entertaining, but it’s not even close to Besson’s biggest hits from the past.

The titular family is the Manzoni organized crime clan, who enter into witness protection and became the Blakes: father Fred (Robert de Niro), mother Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), 17-year-old daughter Belle (Glee‘s Dianna Agron), and younger son Warren (veteran child actor John D’Leo). They settle in a sleepy Normandy village, and are simply unable to abandon the ways of their old neighborhood, which in turn attracts a lot of the wrong type of attention.

Thus, Besson is aiming mainly for black comedy, mostly coming from the readiness that all four Blakes have to solve their minor annoyances with violence, and that is the problem. It’s not that The Family is unfunny. It’s quite clever at times, with the local priest’s hysterical response to Pfeiffer as a standout scene. The problem is that the screenplay by Tonino Benacquista, Besson, and Michael Caleo is not funny enough. A scene where Fred lists the top 10 reasons that he is a likable person might have seemed hilarious on the page, but in practice, it will not draw more than chuckles, as will most of de Niro’s biggest scenes.

Still, Besson retains considerable control over his craft. He’s able to coax far superior work out of both de Niro and Pfeiffer than has been seen from them in years; although their comedy doesn’t draw belly laughs, their chemistry as a married couple is sweet and charming. The climactic action setpiece builds tension well enough, although, again, it pales in comparison to the taut action thrillers of Besson’s 1990s heyday.

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There is no doubt that The Family was buried in the mid-September doldrums because of Belle’s B-plot, in which she seduces a teacher at her school with the intention of losing her virginity to him. Belle is supposed to be lonely and deeply damaged by living the witness protection lifestyle, and Agron’s performance understands this, but it’s still an uncomfortable direction for her story to go. Perhaps Besson doesn’t even realize that what he’s showing would be considered statutory rape in many American jurisdictions, since the age of consent in France is 15. Or perhaps he’s trying to draw some parallels between Fred’s and Warren’s lives of crime and Belle’s own. Regardless of what he was thinking, that storyline is a good summary of The Family as a whole: it’s well-executed, but not nearly as good as it thinks it is.

-Mark Young


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