It might at first seem lazy to cast Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in “The Family,” about a mobster, his wife and their kids hiding out in witness protection in France. De Niro, after all, has played countless goodfellas over the years, while Pfeiffer was herself married to the mob in the film of the same name, not to mention “Scarface.”
It all seems forgivable, however, since writer-director Luc Besson (who adapted Tonino Benacquista’s novel “Malavita” with co-scenarist Michael Caleo) builds on the stunt casting until it culminates in a colossal inside joke that no doubt tickled both the actors and the film’s executive producer, Martin Scorsese.
No one’s ever going to accuse Besson, the director of such over-the-top spectacles as “La Femme Nikita” and “The Fifth Element,” of having a light comic touch, but the mayhem in this minor mob comedy, more often than not, brings the laughs.
For Mafioso-turned-snitch Giovanni (De Niro), currently known as Fred, federal protection from his former partners in crime means constantly uprooting his family. As the film begins, he’s just arrived in Normandy with wife Maggie (Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron, “Glee”) and son Warren (John D’Leo), with FBI agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) never too far away.
Fred starts surreptitiously writing a tell-all memoir while his family gets acclimated in its usual way: Maggie blows up a grocery store where she’s treated rudely, Belle violently puts handsy teen boys and pencil-case thieves in their place and Warren works the angles to do favors, horn in on the local rackets and exact revenge where necessary.
We’ve seen this story before, perhaps most notably in “My Blue Heaven,” the comedic quasi-sequel to “Goodfellas,” but plopping these characters into a part of the world that’s already suspicious of Americans in general just makes their adjustment to civilian life all the more entertaining; Fred’s battle with plumbers, plant owners and local politicians over why there’s brown water coming out of his kitchen faucet makes for a disarmingly amusing subplot, along with a few broken bones.
While De Niro and Pfeiffer manage to find some new notes in these very familiar characters, and Agron and D’Leo both display a knack for dark comedy, Tommy Lee Jones is basically playing Tommy Lee Jones on vacation in France. He’s a fine actor, but he brings nothing to this by-the-book grump that we haven’t seen from him before.
Besson and Caleo don’t always hit that sweet spot of balancing bloodshed and bodily harm with one-liners and farcical set-ups, but they hit more often than they miss. The director has wisely surrounded himself with a top-notch crew; Besson’s regular cinematographer Thierry Arbogast gives Normandy a lush beauty by day but a sinister, chiaroscuro feel at night.
“The Family” by no means redefines the mob comedy, but it’s an amusing enough trifle to bridge the gap between summer excess and autumn’s headier pleasures.