Friday, October 24, 2014

Film Friday: The Family (2013)

Many critics anointed Robert De Niro as the greatest actor of our time. I never bought that. I thought he was great as a gangster or a cop, but that’s about the extent of his range. That said, I really wanted to see his latest film, The Family, because it seemed like one of those perfect setups for De Niro to do what he does best. It wasn’t. This film could have been hilarious, but the tone was all wrong.


Written by one of my favorite directors, Luc Besson, The Family stars Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as a married couple who just moved to France. It also happens that De Niro is a mobster (Giovanni Manzoni) who has turned states evidence against his entire gang and is now in the witness protection program. Dianna Agron and John D’Leo play their children and Tommy Lee Jones plays Robert Stansfield, their frustrated contact person with the FBI.
The problem is that while De Niro has given up his mobster connections, he hasn’t really given up his mobster ways. Thus, he is being moved from town to town until he blows his cover and needs to be moved again. In this instance, we see this right away as De Niro beats up a couple locals who refuse to address his concerns about water quality and about his plumbing. The rest of his family is no better. His wife sets fire to a store which offends her and her kids set up various scams at their school.

All of this is being done under the noses of the FBI agents who watch the family to make sure they stay out of trouble. That said, however, Jones knows the family is doing these things and he keeps threatening to end their government protection if De Niro doesn’t stop. De Niro responds by agreeing to stop causing problems and instead sets out to write his memoirs... memoirs the FBI cannot let De Niro publish.
With De Niro masquerading as an author, he gets invited to participate in a book discussion at the town hall. In the meantime, his son has published an innocuous saying in the school newspaper, which finds its way to America, where it is seen by the mob, who send killers to get De Niro and his family.

A bloodbath ensues.

Why This Film Didn’t Work

The most critical aspect of making any comedy work is tone. No matter how good a comedy may seem on paper, if the tone of the film isn’t right, the overall feel of the film won't be right. And this can be tricky. Indeed, the landscape of films is littered with “dark comedies” that couldn’t quite find the right tone. Even Ghostbusters would have come across as a weak horror film that couldn’t decide if it would rather have been a comedy if it been just a little more serious – much as Frighteners comes across.

At first glance, this film appeared to be another Midnight Run, a brilliant comedy that plays like a drama but keeps you laughing by hitting the right tone at the perfect moments. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even close. The problem with The Family is that it never once comes across as a comedy.
The problems begin with the characters. To make characters work in a comedy, you either need some funny characters or you need serious characters who can be dumped upon at key moments. What De Niro did so brilliantly in Midnight Run was to play the role super seriously as he took sucker punch after sucker punch from the world around him. He doesn’t do that here. Here, De Niro plays a character who is smarter than everyone and knows it. His family is much the same. No one gets the drop on them and there is nothing they can’t handle. The end result is that they are incapable of providing anything funny to the script because you can't laugh at them.
Then you have the problem that everything else in the film is far too serious. The minor characters all act depressed and helplessly become the victims of whatever abuse De Niro chooses to heap upon them. The comedic value in that type of relationship is always how the minor characters fight back, something they cannot do here. Nor is there anything abnormal going on that could produce something unexpectedly funny or strange to make you laugh. The few interactions De Niro has with the locals, which were supposed to be funny, e.g. beating up the plumber, come across as cruel rather than funny. Tommy Lee Jones, who should play the “Droopy Dog” type character who gets roundly abused, doesn’t accept any abuse from De Niro and instead reacts as if this were a serious film. And none of the characters is inherently funny.

Even when something seems kind of funny, the film never follows up on it. For example, I did laugh when Michelle Pfeiffer set fire to the store as revenge; it was very unexpected and opened all kinds of doors of comedic potential. But rather than make this the focal point of the story, perhaps with De Niro freaking out about what his wife has done and trying to cover it up from the FBI, they just take it in stride. De Niro barely even mentions it. The locals never investigate. The FBI doesn’t find out about it. And the film just drops it. Ditto on the water system guy and the plumber. Not only is it not credible that there would be no consequences, but these are the extreme moments that are supposed to make us laugh and they just get dropped by the film. Even the manuscript De Niro is writing is tossed aside and never goes anywhere.
Perhaps the biggest sin tone-wise comes at the end. This was supposed to be a comedy, but once the mobsters show up in town, they slaughter the FBI agents, slaughter some locals, and come after the family. Obviously, dark comedies will have some darkness, but as I said, the tone is key. This bloody moment, which is entirely unlike everything else in the film, just doesn’t fit any sort of comedic tone. It's too serious, too bloody, and the consequences are disproportionate to what the film has prepared us for.

So what you have here is a film that may have looked great on paper. You can see how the setup alone is appealing, as it appeared in the trailers. The actors seem perfect for the role. The story contains many of the elements a comedy should. But in moving it from paper to film, this one fell apart because it never came near projecting a comedic tone. At best, it comes across as a weak action film with a few outrageous moments that may have been intended as humor. In fact, if you didn’t tell people this was meant as a comedy, I doubt the audience would have known.



ScottDS said...

Luc Besson also directed the film. The trailers looked entertaining enough but the reviews were less than kind. This is another one I haven't seen, but I doubt I'll bother to check it out.

I like De Niro and I think he's a great actor but no one will deny he's been phoning it in for years. He was good in Silver Linings Playbook but even in that film, he's still playing Robert De Niro: Authority Figure. But he also has a small role in American Hustle and he does an excellent job with only 10 minutes of screen time. He's still got it

And it should be a crime to waste Michelle Pfeiffer in a bad film!

P.S. I just watched Brian De Palma's most recent movie, 2012's Passion, with Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace. It's... ridiculous, and one step above a Lifetime movie-of-the-week!

Voz said...

I like Luc Besson as well and when I saw this,I thought it should have been an action/thriller instead of an action/comedy. The action piece at the end was well done I thought...but it did change the feel of the movie, and it felt more like a Luc Besson movie...much more like From Paris with Love...which I liked a lot...though lots of people didn't.

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, I agreed. This would have been better as an action movie with slight comedic overtones than a pretend comedy. And you are right, the ending was a good action film, but had a totally different feel than the rest of the film.

From Paris With Love was great! I liked that one a lot. I should review it.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Yes, he directed too. I should have mentioned that. I agree about De Niro phoning it in. It's been a long time since I bought him in the role he's playing and even longer since I felt he scored something truly memorable.

I'm not a big fan of Pfeiffer, but she does well enough here. The problem is that her best moments are ultimately just dropped after they happen. That's the real problem with this film, is that they set up some good things but then they walk away from them without ever letting them play out.

I haven't seen Passion and I couldn't finish American Hustle.

ScottDS said...

Really? I liked Hustle enough... BUT the first half meanders waaay too much, and I had no idea what the hell was going on half the time. The actors were good but not all of them deserved awards, especially Jennifer Lawrence... and I say that as a fan and would-be suitor. :-)

As for this movie, just sounds like a miscalculation. I actually saw From Paris with Love and kinda liked it. It was just over the top enough not to take too seriously.

AndrewPrice said...

Hustle had so many things wrong that I just lost interest. The story meandered to the point of being meaningless. The characters weren't likable or interesting. The sound sucked. The soundtrack sucked. It felt like someone wanted to rip off Goodfellas but had no taste in music or understanding that the story needs to rip along with the music. I just gave up after a while.

shawn said...

I thought the film passable, but agree it wasn't funny.

I second the idea of reviewing "From Paris with Love". Fun movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I don't regret seeing this, though I have no desire to see it again... it wasn't horrible. It just wasn't good. It wasn't funny, the jokes fell flat, and it wasn't really an action film either.

Rustbelt said...

Is it just me, or does this movie sound like Luc Besson watched "My Blue Heaven" with Steve Martin and Rick Moranis and said, "I can do better than that with only a lot more action"?

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I had that thought in the first few minutes -- "Gee, this sounds like My Blue Heaven." But the film never quite hit that tone and it dropped the whole "fish out of water" feel which drove My Blue Heaven.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hit the nail onthe the head with this review, Andrew!
Besson should've watched Lillyhammer if he wanted to make this a comedy action and set the right tone.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

I'm not saying this flick was horrible but it's not something I would ever watch again either. So many lost opportunities.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, I agree. This wasn't a horrible film that left me wishing I'd never seen it. It just wasn't a good film and it felt frustrating seeing all the missed opportunities, which pile up fast.

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