Skip to main content

Your family is the incarnation of evil!

The Family
(2013)

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.


***1/2


Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was