Luc Besson’s star-powered Mafia comedy arrived last autumn to a less than enthusiastic response. Complaints centred on over-obvious targets and repeated tropes, and I guess that’s fair comment. It might not be the most uproariously funny, cleverest or most acutely observed mob comedy ever. But it’s an enthusiastically black-hearted piece of confectionary, nevertheless. What it lacks in nuance it makes up for with superlative casting (the kids included) and a director who actually reminds you (finally) why he was so hyped back in the day. This is Besson’s best movie since the ‘90s, which is perhaps faint praise but it’s praise nevertheless.
Some of the arguments against appear to object to the tone of the picture; a movie about a family of sociopaths where the audience isn’t asked to care about the wanton violence they inflict, way out of proportion with anything perpetrated on them, and the carnage they bring down on innocents through their very self-centred existence. Except this kind of thing seems wholly the point of a black comedy. It in no way deserves a place near the hallowed ground of, say, Kind Hearts and Coronets, but Dennis Price’s terrible behaviour there is no less winning or endearing for him being a serial killer. I suspect you will either be on board with Besson’s excesses or you won’t; there’s not much middle ground here. As the priest who wishes he hadn’t heard the confession of Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) says, “Your family is the incarnation of evil!”
Key to this is Besson’s adoption of a deliberately exaggerated style. This is much closer to The Fifth Element’s detour into cartoonish lunacy than the director’s earlier straight action pictures Nikita and Leon (the upcoming Lucy, with Scarlett Johansen and Samuel L Jackson, looks like it may be a conscious companion piece to those two). This is a movie where the gangster hit men dress like cliché of movie gangsters (broad hats and great coats, in the middle of Normandy). It’s also a movie where the culture clash is accentuated to a grotesque degree; the French curse American crudeness, vulgarity and the pervasive intrusion of their culture into all corners of the earth. At the same time they are shown as a pimply, acne-ridden bunch whose bad skin results from an obsession with cream sauces.
Besson and Michael Caleo adapted Tonino Benacquista’s Malavita (known as Badfellas in its English translation), and the title change to The Family in English speaking countries occurred quite late in the day. The story finds ex mob boss Fred/Giovanni (Robert De Niro) and his family in a FBI witness protection programme overseen by Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones). The “Blakes” can’t help themselves when it comes to getting into trouble, be it through Fred killing neighbours who annoy him over petty disputes or Maggie setting alight supermarkets when she takes a dislike to the locals’ attitude. So it is that mafia boss Don Luchese (Stan Carp) gets wind of their presence in France. He sets his hounds to track down the Blakes and kill them as payback for Fred snitching.
The picture is appealingly unapologetic in its conceits; most of the locals end up speaking English to our American interlopers, simply because its easier all round that way. The teen angst bullshit of Blake/Manzoni offspring Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo) is nothing if not familiar. She falls for the trainee Maths teacher and has her heart broken. He takes a piece of any high school scam or trade going. Both are introduced as underdogs, undergoing beatings or threats of sexual assault, so we’re instantly onside when they take violent revenge. D’Leo essays the cocksure cunning of a young wannabe-hood with impressive confidence; it would be no stretch to see him in one of the Scorsese movies this is in thrall to. I wasn’t familiar with Agron as I don’t watch Glee, but she powers the shifts from vicious fury (beating a girl senseless for stealing her pink pencil case) to lovelorn despair with accomplishment. Perhaps her turn to the suicidal is on the over-the-top side, but this is not a subtle movie.
The movies De Niro and Pfeiffer both appeared in but didn’t share any scenes didn’t ring any instant bells (Pfeiffer mentions this in the publicity material). Both are fairly recent. Stardust is one. New Year’s Eve is another. Neither were missing out much (I’m being a little hard on Stardust there; it’s likeable) so it’s good to see their combative chemistry. Pfeiffer has flirted with mafia movies before; her endearing lead in Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob. She breaks out the accent again, but Maggie Blake is decidedly more hard-boiled and intolerant than Angela de Marco. When Fred inadvisably announces he is working on a book about the D-Day Landings to his new neighbour (“Why the fuck didn’t I just say I was a novelist?”) she has no compunction in emphasising the shortcomings of his decision (“You can hardly read and you’re going to write a book about the Normandy landings? You don’t even know who Eisenhower is”). The family as a whole is suffocating from the temporary nature of their lifestyle and an inability to escape each other’s company.
Fred finds his diversion when he is seized by a compulsion to write his memoirs. De Niro’s flirtations with parodying his gangster movie heritage are as well trodden as those films themselves. At this point he’s not an actor who’s going to offer anyone any surprises. The best you can hope for is that he’s engaged rather than sleepwalking. And he seems to be having a good time here, wandering about in his shorts and taking a decidedly laidback course when dealing with his family. His rage is mostly reserved for unforthcoming neighbours and acquaintances, leading to a stream of fantasy sequences in which he sets upon them at a family barbecue or as he attempts to sort out the town’s problem with brown water (“Oh what, you going to whack the mayor now?”) This is a family for whom keeping secrets is second nature; the first scene finds the family pet blamed for an unholy smell permeating the car. Soon after arriving at their destination we learn the source is a body Fred has concealed in the boot (“I know it wasn’t you but I couldn’t say nothing”, he tells the pooch). Besson keeps the plotting lively through interspersing flashbacks both to Fred’s mob past and as punctuation points for gags (we assume he has wasted the plumber until we cut to Fred explaining how he got 12 fractures from falling down the stairs).
There’s certainly nothing very original about Besson’s comic techniques, but they provide for frequent and easy laughs. Jones’ Walter Matthau-like resignation at Fred’s capacity for self-harming culminates in the best scene in the movie, and certainly the punchline, for anyone in any doubt, that tells where this movie is at. Having warned Fred to be very careful what he says during his attendance of a screening of Some Came Running at the local film society (Fred, as an insightful American, has been asked to provide some insights), Stansfield is aghast to find that, due to a mix-up, Goodfellas has been delivered instead. Fred is unable to resist the urge to entertain his audience with tales of the life (“This fucker’s out of control!” comments Stansfield in disgust) but the agent’s summary of the event (“It was a complete disaster”) is at odds with the rapturous applause that greets the ex-gangster when he finishes. For all De Niro’s prior shamelessness in referencing past glories, there’s something especially satisfying about the gleeful self-reflexivity here. It’s a lot of fun to see De Niro and Jones sharing scenes too. Both are inhabiting roles they can do in their sleep at this point, and in other movies they frequently very nearly appeared to be in that state while delivering them, but that familiarity makes their riffing to each other, so naturally and with such ease, all the more satisfying.
The appeal of other sequences and plot twists relies on a similar embrace of the picture’s self-awareness; the unlikeliness of the journey of the school rag, in which Warren has submitted a poem using language recognised by Don Luchese, is entirely absurd. But that’s entirely the point. I found it enormous fun, and it’s clear Besson was having a good time putting it together. Elsewhere, the director undercuts the expected. The big climax, when it comes, is as assured as any action set piece he’s delivered in the past. Yet the head of the family doesn’t get to kill anyone. It’s mostly the chips off the old block that take down the marauding mobsters. Part of that may well be Besson indulging his fetish for kick-ass young women once again. He’s like a very French Joss Whedon in that way.
Besson’s regular cinematographer Thierry Arbogast comes up trumps with a typically bold and primary palette. When the action arrives it is muscular and clearly defined, and there are some lovely touches; Di Cicco (Jimmy Palumbo) puts a hit on a family after blowing in their front door, his gun appears first through the shroud of smoke billowing down the hallway. When he and his team arrive in the village to whack Fred, they descend from the train in slow motion to the sound of Gorillaz’ Clint Eastwood. The score from Evgueni and Sacha Galperine perhaps overdoes the quirky mannerisms in places, but generally it’s an appropriate accompaniment.
I’ll readily admit I’d sort of given up on Besson over the last 15 years. He’d announced his retirement at one point, and from Joan of Arc onwards he hasn’t seemed especially energised in either subject matter or approach. All those Arthur and the Invisibles movies can’t be helping matters. It’s like Robert Rodriquez fixating on Spy Kids, except that Besson is talented. Then there’s his prodigious producing and writing career, churning out successive variants on economical hit man scenarios with directors who only need to approximate his style. So it’s good to have him back and showing his mettle. Hopefully this summer’s Lucy will be able to sit alongside his best work.