1 hour, 51 minutes
Europa Corp, Media Magik Entertainment
The first time I ever became acquainted with the term “black comedy” was probably in a high school English class discussion of “A Modest Proposal,” wherein Jonathan Swift suggests that the poor of Irish could easily solve their poverty troubles by simply selling their children for food. That’s satire, but dark humor and satire often go hand in hand, as in the classic anti-war novel, “Catch 22” or Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant “Dr. Strangelove.” Satire and black comedy, therefore, seemed a kind of intellectual pursuit - an intelligently playful skewering of societal expectations. That’s not to say these works are without edge - certainly “Catch 22” has some of the most disturbing scenes I’ve ever read, and try to imagine the reactions of those humorless English aristocrats upon perusing Dr. Swift’s essay back in 1729. But I didn’t experience the gleefully vicious variety of dark humor until 1998’s “Very Bad Things,” the Christian Slater laugh-riot in which a prostitute is accidentally killed during a bachelor party, and things just get worse from there. This is a film I can appreciate for a kind of gutsy style, and for little else. I actively despise the movie, and, while my reaction was not nearly as strong, this weekend’s “The Family” immediately called back unpleasant memories.
Directed by French action auteur Luc Besson, “The Family” is a well-done, fast-paced action comedy with very good, though not great, performances from major talents including Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Tommy Lee Jones, among others. DeNiro is Fred Blake, previously known as Giovanni Manzoni, head of one of the most powerful crime families on the East Coast, now withering away under the monotonous strictures of the witness protection program. Bouncing around France every time Fred and his family cause too much attention, the quartet, including wife Maggie and teen children Belle and Warren, are now residing in a quiet village in Normandy. The comedy is obvious - big city mafioso fish out of water hijinks ensue when the Blake family tries to adjust to village life. Unfortunately, hijinks are exactly what FBI handler Robert Stansfield, played with his usual world weariness by Tommy Lee Jones, wants to avoid. After all, Fred is in witness protection for a reason. Playing ball with the FBI and snitching on the rest of the mob isn’t usually the healthiest activity, and the contract is out on the Blake family.
I wanted to like this movie. I even did like it, at times. There’s really nothing technical to complain about. The script is tight and the plot moves briskly along. The performances are good, and the action is plentiful. The problem is that there is no one to root for. No one to like. Besson seems contemptuous of the small-minded, petty villagers that surround the Blake family, and paints them as almost insufferably rude or oblivious. But our heroes, the characters we are supposed to connect with, are a thousand times worse. In getting their revenge on their snobby neighbors, Frank, Maggie, and the kids proceed to blow up, rob, or bludgeon nearly everyone around them. These scenes of violence are supposed to be a catharsis, I suppose. Wouldn’t you like to get back at someone you can’t stand by meting out a little righteous justice? That’s what movies and novels are for. But Besson and Co. quickly take those scenes past cathartic and right on in to disturbing. Case in point. Belle, walking home from her first day of school encounters a carload of loutish townie teens. Offering to give her a lift home, the four boys actually drive her out to the lake where they obviously assume they are going to get lucky. So, when Belle knocks out the leader of the gang with a tennis racket, you want to cheer. You stop wanting to cheer, however, as she continues to beat his unconscious body for a full thirty seconds until the tennis racket finally breaks. The speech she then gives the remaining boys about how to treat a lady should be funny, but it’s only nervous laughter at that point. The whole movie is like this. The closest thing to a relatable character is Maggie, and while it’s nice to see Michelle Pfeiffer on screen again, even she is a little too sociopathic to identify with.
I see what Besson is doing. Americans have a morbid fascination with mob movies and mafia characters from “The Untouchables,” to “The Sopranos,” to “Boardwalk Empire.” Here the director is slapping us in the face with our own hypocrisy by making his heroes so odious. I can only assume that the French have a morbid fascination with Americans, and that’s where he is skewering them. There’s one pretty interesting scene where Fred and Stansfield are invited to a local film society screening of none other than “Goodfellas.” The crowd swoons at the marvel of the film and Fred blissfully holds court on what the real mobsters were like. The problem is that Besson is perhaps missing the mark when he criticizes us for glorifying criminals in these films. That hypocrisy, that disconnect is already what movies like “Goodfellas” are about. Those movies and shows already criticize their audience for getting caught up in the violence, and do it better than “The Family” ever could.
This film works fine, as is, I suppose. But not for me. I would have enjoyed it much more if it had taken a lighter tone, with less vicious satire and a somewhat softer touch. Never does the film achieve the levels of grotesquery that “Very Bad Things” does, but neither does it ever give me a character to latch onto, to help me weather the storm. Instead, the audience is left adrift to find amusement and entertainment where it can, only to be punished for it shortly thereafter. Grade: C
“The Family” is rated R for violence, pervasive language, and sexual situations.
Chris Jenness is a freelance
graphic designer, artist and
movie buff who lives in Nikiski.