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The Family

In the opening sequence of “The Family,” an entire family are slaughtered at the dinner table by a mafia hit man. Sitting in the theater, I said to myself, “OK…this is not a comedy.” Innocent people don’t die in comedies, and when people do get knocked off in a flick that’s aiming for laughs, you don’t show their bullet-riddled corpses lying in pools of blood on the dining room floor.

But then the film quickly doubles back on its promise to be a grim mob thriller, and tries to be a violent comedy. Then it doubles back again, and again. By the time the credits rolled, I felt like I was watching a weird mash-up of “We’re the Millers” and “Scarface,” or maybe a Three Stooges flick where every smack, gash and thwack leaves a grisly mark, until Larry, Moe and Curly are nothing but a bloody disfigured corpses. Is that funny?I was in a pretty full theater on opening weekend, and I barely heard a laugh.

Robert De Niro plays a mobster in witness protection with a $20 million bounty on his head. Michelle Pfeiffer is his patient but weary wife, doing her best to provide a normal life for her children even as the family changes locations and identities every three months. The kids are 14 year-old John D’Leo, who has learned how to, within a week, become the fixer in every new school he moves to, and 17 year old Dianna Agron, who (literally) fights off the rude boys while on the hunt for just the right guy to surrender her virginity unto. They have to keep moving from French town to French town because none of them seem capable of resolving a conflict by any means except violence, and the rising body count gives away their location to the fedora-wearing hit man on their trail.

It’s so formulaic and shapeless that about halfway through I wondered what hack of a director was behind this mess, and if he’d ever be able to find work again. Imagine my surprise to see Luc Besson’s name in the end credits. Really, the guy who made stylish films like “La Femme Nikita” and “The Fifth Element” is responsible for this?

Really, though, not a bad idea for a film. “The Sopranos” milked a ton of quality entertainment out of a mobster family struggling with domesticity and trying to be a somewhat normal family. Take a page from that book, give it a new setting (France) and a new problem (in hiding) and a good writer could probably generate a compelling film. “The Family” takes some passes at that sort of material: De Niro finds that he enjoys writing his own memoir, and even his handler admits there’s a certain style in his prose. And Pfeiffer, when she isn’t busy worrying about her kids, tries to find some solace in the church. But these scenes feel half-finished, out of place; they don’t fit with the dark comedy Bresson seems to be trying to make, and probably should have been edited out. They’re the best scenes in the film, and they belong on the cutting room floor.

The film meanders along for its first 90 minutes going nowhere, dutifully switching from family member to family member as they all play out the same basic plot. Agron beats up a girl who steals her pencil case. D’Leo gathers a gang and then beats up the bullies who picked on him. Pfeiffer blows up a grocery store run by a rude Frenchman who hates peanut butter. De Niro tries to figure out why the water coming out of his kitchen tap is brown, and predictably leaves a trail of bodies behind him. When he’s not beating people up, he’s fantasizing about beating people up.

These scenes could be funny, if they were allowed to be sillier, and if there were fewer of them. But they maintain that same grim, all-too-real sense of violence that was present in the opening scene. De Niro get frustrated with a plumber who shows up late and wants to do too much, so he attacks him with a baseball bat. In the next scene, De Niro is trying to explain to the doctor how the guy could have broken his leg in 12 places by falling down the stairs. This is supposed to be funny, I think.

“The Family” is buoyed, a little bit, by a solid performance from Michelle Pfeiffer. She’s pretty convincing and relatable as a mother of teenagers doing her best to keep them safe and provide them some modicum of stability and normalcy, and you wish she had a better movie around her. De Niro has reverted, once again, to a parody of his performances in earlier, better films; the commitment and vitality he showed in last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook” is utterly absent here. Only Tommy Lee Jones, who plays De Niro’s handler, seems to know what a dud of a film he’s in. He seems terribly tired, and eager only to get this thing over with. The hangdog look on his face makes hims seem barely capable of mustering a bona fide emotion. Or maybe that’s just the way Tommy Lee Jones plays every role.

The final act is much better, and exhibits Besson’s strengths as a director. The mob finally tracks down De Niro and company – the way they figure out where they are, though implausible, is one of the cleverest sequences in the film. As they descend on the tiny French town, the film becomes a taut and tense action film, perfectly paced, exciting and truly thrilling. It’s not enough to make up for the muddled mess that came before, but there is something to be said for watching Dianna Agron, clad in a pristine white dress, gun down black-clad bad guys in the dark stone streets of Normandy. “The Family” is an incoherent mess, but at least it goes out with a bang.

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