At this point, Robert De Niro has built an entire subgenre of movies in which he sticks his tongue out at his cinematic legacy. After inventing our modern idea of a wiseguy in films like The Godfather Part II and Goodfellas, the actor has spent much of the last 20 years lampooning it in farces like the funny Analyze This (and its disappointing sequel Analyze That) and the very funny Meet the Parents (and its very disappointing sequels Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers). The results have been mixed, but De Niro’s star hasn’t faded — maybe because the line between those movies and his more serious work (eg, Silver Linings Playbook) has remained so clear.
But the new comedy-thriller The Family, directed and co-written by Luc Besson (The Fifth Element), doesn’t just wink at De Niro’s history, it leans on it, hard. The actor might as well be playing an older version of his Scorsese-era persona as Giovanni Manzoni, a former mob boss who snitched and now has to hide in the Witness Protection Program in northern France. With a grizzled FBI agent (Tommy Lee Jones) as a guardian angel, the Manzoni family members all try to act as humdrum as possible to avoid attention. Giovanni pretends to be an author at work on a WWII book. His tough-as-nails wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) plays hausfrau, his hot-tempered daughter (Glee’s Dianna Agron) flirts with her math tutor, and his whip smart son (John D’Leo) makes allies at school.
These fish-out-of-water B-plots mostly look for laughs in the Manzoni family’s inverted, Addams-esque morality. To them, crime is good, normal people are boring, and a brutal beating is a perfectly acceptable solution to mundane problems like a stolen pencil case or a rude plumber. Sometimes it works, especially in Pfeiffer’s scenes, where she shows off a darkly comic edge that hasn’t had this much of a showcase since the last time she played a wiseguy’s wife in 1988’s Married to the Mob. Yet the movie’s violence level is so strangely high that it jars the comedy. There’s only so long you can laugh at a person getting savagely pummeled before you start imagining how much it would hurt.
The Family also doesn’t have any real twists in store beyond its basic setup. You know that Giovanni’s past — in the form of bounty-hunting hitmen — will catch up to him. And it does, turning the third act into a generic thriller with a weirdly high body count. Before that, though, there are some memorable scenes, including one wry meta-moment in which the movie outright acknowledges the fact that Robert De Niro himself is playing Giovanni. It’ll probably make you laugh — and wonder if the movie is about to head in a much smarter, kookier direction. (It isn’t.) But mostly it makes you wish that you were watching De Niro add to his movie legacy instead of scrapping it for gags. B-