Mostly the violence is played for broad laughs, as in “Analyze This.” But sometimes it's deadly serious, as in “The Godfather.” It's an interesting line to dance on.
However the violence is treated in director and co-screenwriter Luc Besson's black comedy “The Family,” there's a lot of it, with a hefty body count (including some innocents). And if that didn't guarantee a hard-R rating, a lesson on the finer points of how you can give different meanings to the F-bomb, depending on how you deliver it, would.
This is like a mobster version of “The Addams Family,” at least for most of the picture, with the accent on black-comedy laughs.
Besson, a French director known for action thrillers like “La Femme Nikita,” “The Transporter” and “Taken,” has some fun playing with archetypes here, both French and American, including in how he cast his movie.
Robert De Niro is Giovanni Manzoni, a mobster in witness protection after he ratted on La Famiglia. Gio; his wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer); and their teen kids, Belle (Dianna Agron, “Glee”) and Warren (John D'Leo), have bounced from Paris to the Riviera and now to some backwater town in Normandy because they just can't seem to blend in and behave.
Gio has issues with French tendencies to be arrogant and inefficient. In getting to the bottom of why the water coming from the kitchen tap is brown, he deals with the plumber and the mayor in his own way (shades of “Analyze This”). De Niro is clearly engaged, having fun with the range he gets to play here.
Maggie doesn't like the local cuisine (too much cream and butter), nor the grocer trash-talking Americans with the local housewives. She has her own way of exploding. It's a toned down, slightly menacing version of her performance in “Married to the Mob,” and it's a tasty tidbit of acting to watch.
The kids case the local high school, quickly figuring what buttons to push to exact revenge on bullies and piggish paramours. Agron and D'Leo are really good in these roles. He concentrates on power plays, while she targets a substitute teacher as her first real romantic conquest.
As the federal agent trying to protect the family from a mob reprisal, Tommy Lee Jones plays a version of the frustrated, poker-faced lawman in “The Fugitive,” outraged when Gio decides to two-finger type his memoirs between failures to rein in what he calls “my sadistic urges.” De Niro's candid narration from the memoirs makes you think of “Goodfellas.”
Whatever else you think of all the blood and profanity and shifts in tone, you'll likely have to admit “The Family” makes you care about Mom, Dad and the kids, and to believe they really care about each other, just as “The Sopranos” managed to do. When the mob finally finds them, the climactic finish is suspenseful, even shocking at times.
Can't help but wonder how Besson's movie will play in his home country. He seems an unlikely person to hand Americans a revenge fantasy matched to the stereotyped list of bad French behaviors. (By the way, all the French people in this movie seem uncharacteristically — but conveniently — eager to talk in English.)
In any case, “The Family” is a clever riff on archetypes that's funny in the blackest of black-comedy ways, violent and profane and, finally, a bit of a thriller. The individual performances might be better than the movie overall. C'est la vie, c'est la guerre. That's amore. And fuggedaboudit.
A side note: The family dog's name, Malavita, is also the name of the French novel by Tonino Benacquista on which this movie is based.