Review: 'The Family', Starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer

Imagine if there was a sequel to Goodfellas that followed mobster Henry Hill's attempts to live a boring "egg noodles and ketchup" existence in the witness protection program, and that's pretty much what The Family is. The meta pitch black comedy comes from the unlikely combination of French director Luc Besson and exec-producer Martin Scorsese, and if that sounds like a mix that shouldn't work on any level then you'd be wrong. Mostly. With Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer glorying in some of their finest mafia-inspired roles, The Family uses violence as a weapon for some big laughs and bigger action, even if the tone may throw some for a loop.

Nobody does mobster like De Niro, and he easily dons the persona of former mob boss Gio Manzoni, who ratted out his old crew and now has a $20M bounty on his head. Now known as Fred Blake, he and his wife Maggie (Pfeiffer), and two kids Warren (John D’Leo) and Belle (Dianna Agron) are on the move to Normandy after turning state's evidence and entering witness protection. Leaving the old life behind is easier said than done; Gio's first act upon arriving is to bury a stinking corpse; but it doesn't help when your first reaction to every situation is to either whack someone or blow stuff up.

This is also one of those movies where the lead character fancies himself a writer, and he'll struggle the entire time to put his thoughts on paper. We've seen it a thousand times but Gio's past puts an interesting angle on it. Spilling his guts in a book wouldn't just expose his family and further exasperate their grumpy handler, agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), but if Gio's old bosses catch wind of it then they're all dead.

Of course, the family is pretty good at drawing attention to themselves without Gio's help. Maggie quickly grows tired of the snooty French locals and takes explosive measures to correct. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree with either child, as Warren quickly takes over the high school and starts a side business that puts the bullies in their place. Belle isn't just sexy, she has a vicious streak and hair-trigger temper that she's not afraid to unleash on catty "mean girls" and potential suitors alike. Like Al Capone said, and Gio is fond of quoting, "Asking polite with a gun in your hand is better than asking polite with nothing.”

Based on Tonino Benacquista's satirical novel Malavita (it means "Badfellas" and is the name of the Blakes' dog) and co-written by the author, the film finds its biggest laughs in the Blakes' fish-out-of-water mishaps as they try to blend in unsuccessfully. Besson, who directed La Femme Nikita and The Professional, can choreograph an action sequence with the best of them, but comedy has never really been his strong suit.  More overt attempts at humor fall flat, like the constant commentary on French attitudes and their cream-based cuisine. It works best when dealing with the family's various eccentricities, which are played honestly and personally enough to be effective. It's tough to square the excessive use of violence, especially against people who probably don't really deserve it, but it's played in an over-the-top fashion for a reason. We're expected to find it funny initially because we're looking for this to be a comedy similar to Besson's From Paris with Love, but over time the stakes raise to a deadly level and the brutality comes with a severe price.

Gio gets a chance to live up to his criminal past and embrace his cover as an author by debating on a local screening of Goodfellas, while poor Stansfield can only watch in disgust. De Niro comes alive in this scene, like he's reliving the glory days of his storied career. He's in full Analyze This mode, delivering a tongue-in-cheek look at his vast array of mafia performances. Similarly, Pfeiffer gets to break out her old Married to the Mob persona as the fierce (and fearsome) Maggie, the long-suffering wife who will do literally anything to protect her family. Her chemistry with De Niro is impeccable, two screen veterans who have been in a pair of movies together before but never shared a single scene. The wait was worth it. When they are together, whether it's arguing over pasta or sharing an intimate moment, the film really pops. D'Leo gives off a young Joe Pesci vibe as Warren, while Glee's Dianna Agron makes a strong impression as Belle. Only Tommy Lee Jones seems to have checked out, perhaps because he's not given much to do but grumble.

In none-too-subtle fashion, the film mocks our acceptance of the mafia in the movies and television, then follows it up by a bloody shoot-out that leaves a number of folks sleeping with the fishes. It's meant to make us think, but we don't need Besson to beat us over the head with a baseball bat. The film is clever enough on its own, and with De Niro and Pfeiffer doing what they do best, The Family should be enjoyable to more than just wiseguys.