Dark comedy is a notorious difficult genre to get right. The Family makes a half hearted effort to be a ‘dark comedy’ but sadly fails. But it is not without any redeeming features despite what a well known TV personality was heard to utter as we left our preview screening. Robert De Niro, despite his best efforts, is still has a great screen presence even if he sacrificed artistic integrity for the pay cheque a couple of ‘Meet The Parents’ ago. Besides, De Niro can play gangsters in his sleep (and probably would if the money was right) so The Family is hardly a stretch for the Hollywood great. Indeed at a press conference with the man himself, and co-stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Dianna Agron, De Niro spoke of his plans to reunite with Martin Scorsese in the future- the result of this hopefully more gratifying than The Family.
De Niro plays mafia boss, Giovanni, who has been placed into a witness protection program with his family after he ‘snitches’ on crime kingpin, Don Luchese (Stan Carp) and now has a heavy price on his head amongst his former Mafia friends. There were some other elements which contributed to Giovanni ending up living in Normandy with his family, but they seemed irrelevant, especially to the director, Luc Besson, who quickly forgets to provide any explanation as to why the FBI would chose to hide a family in a rural village in northern France. De Niro was similarly perplexed as to why his character would be placed in Normandy of all places.
But to sacrifice the French location would be to sacrifice most of the culture related jokes which Besson insists on just in case we weren’t sure just how foreign American and French people are to each other. In fact Besson’s apparent disdain towards the French and France in general is all the more surprising given that he is actually French himself. Perhaps years of being ridiculed as being the most ‘Hollywood of French filmmakers’ by his compatriots has finally got to him.
But if The Family is the standard by which we judge him by, then the criticism is hardly an unfair one. Having spent the last decade producing movies with Liam Neeson/Jason Statham (insert as appropriate) travelling around Europe shooting people, it’s refreshing to see he’s equally capable of directing films filled with mindless violence and nonexistent morality.
The trouble is that you can see what Besson wanted to do, and what I sensed the cast signed up to do: to portray a Mafia family forced to adapt to normal life after a lifetime of crime; balancing the everyday challenges of meeting the neighbours, combating bullies and first love, whilst the threat of retribution from their old lives hangs heavy over them. But all that rests heavily on you actually caring about the family. But when mother Maggie, (Pfeiffer) blows up a shop because the owner mocks American culture, or Giovanni fantasies about sticking his neighbour’s face into hot coal for criticising his barbecue, we’re meant to laugh?
Comedy and violence can work together as long as the cardinal rule remains that violence has consequences, as so many of De Niro’s previous films have shown. Except here all that the onslaught of violence achieves is a lot of innocent civilians dead and the family relocating, with an unjustified sense of ‘togetherness’. Most perversely of all, daughter, Bella, (Agron) all ready to kill herself because the boy she slept with doesn’t want her anymore, thinks better of it when the potential to kill some baddies presents itself instead. If you want to see a film about murderers in a foreign country trying to cope with the consequences of their actions, watch In Bruges– a film with real darkness and real comedy.