The genesis of Luc Besson‘s The Family, a weak comedy, can be traced back to 1999’s Analyze This, in which Robert De Niro played it for laughs on Billy Crystal‘s couch. That was the moment when Bobby tried to marry his mobster-nutcase persona with the king of comedy, and things have never really been the same since.
A growing theory is that De Niro retired post Analyze This, and that every film he’s done since then the person seen on screen is a tribute act — affectionately, knowingly nodding to what’s been, but safe in the knowledge that this isn’t the real thing.
That reached its apogee recently with the reputation-raping Grudge Match, in which De Niro took a large one on the memory of Raging Bull.
In The Family De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, the pater familias of a mafia clan living under the witness protection program in Normandy, northern France. The trouble is he, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and their teenage kids Belle and Warren (Dianna Agron and John D’Leo) just can’t live the incognito life. Soon after arriving in a small town Maggie burns down the supermarket after being slighted by some fantastically rude locals, while Belle and Warren start running the rackets at the local high school.
The family’s handler, Tommy Lee Jones, is at his wits’ end, having already had to relocated them a few times thanks to their propensity for mobster stuff.
Back in the US of A the ratted-upon are seeking revenge on Gio the Rat and his brood. Can the Manzonis keep their heads down long enough not to be noticed? Will Tommy Lee and his goons be savvy enough to face down the storm when it comes?
Although De Niro gurns his way through proceedings, his chemistry with Pfeiffer is great and Jones does his trademarked hangdog thing with this usual professionalism.
The plot isn’t up to much, though, and the long time spent following the kids around their schoolyard adventures seems like so much filler.
The shark is successfully hurdled when De Niro, who’s living under the guise of a writer, is invited to the local film society to lead a post-screening talk about an old Frank Sinatra flick. Turns out the wrong film has been sent through, so the town sits down to watch Goodfellas. As far back as he can remember, Robert De Niro always wanted to be a comedian. He needs to start mining for laughs in something other than his own legacy. You know why? Out of respect.