No matter what other kind of roles Robert De Niro has played throughout his illustrious career, he will forever be associated with gangster movies. This isn’t an unfair classification, mind you; from The Godfather, Part II to Once Upon a Time in America to Goodfellas to Analyze This, De Niro has never shied away from those types of roles.
He’s at it again with The Family, in which he plays Giovanni Manzoni, a former gangster who’s been in witness protection for years with his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D’Leo) after ratting out his crew. The trouble is, he can’t seem to leave his old ways completely behind, forcing the family to move every couple of months or so.
Giovanni, a.k.a. Fred in his new life, hits the sweet spot for De Niro, allowing him to be mean, funny, emotional and endearing at various points
Their latest stop is Normandy, France, where they’re overseen by Robert (Tommy Lee Jones), their increasingly exasperated FBI escort. The four try to assimilate with the locals as best they can, but as in past stops, their efforts fall well short of optimal.
The film, written and directed by Luc Besson, is as dark a comedy as any that’s come out in recent memory. All sorts of mayhem, from beatings to explosions to deaths, are played for laughs, and for the most part it works. Characters in every comedy have their foibles, and for these four, they just happen to be irresistible urges to hurt people.
Besson also does a solid job of playing on gangster motifs without making the film seem derivative. The family being in Normandy helps greatly, because the juxtaposition between the quaint French countryside and the family’s brutish ways is a natural way to introduce humor.
De Niro and Pfeiffer, who has her own history with gangster movies, both deliver the goods in their respective roles. Giovanni, a.k.a. Fred in his new life, hits the sweet spot for De Niro, allowing him to be mean, funny, emotional and endearing at various points. Pfeiffer has never really gone away, but she hasn’t had a part this enjoyable in years, and she knocks it out of the park.
Their kids could’ve been throwaway parts, but both Agron and D’Leo make the most of their screen time. In fact, their scheming and dealing at their new school makes for some of the funniest parts of the film. And Jones plays the straight man to a tee, making his deadpan delivery an essential part of the film.
The Family is a clever take on the gangster movie, and shows that De Niro has not yet worn out his welcome as the resident Hollywood Mafioso.