Well, this is better than the trailer, which I thought made it look like a one-note comedy. It’s a comedy, but it has more than one note. It’s a very black comedy and quite gruesome in its own terms, but the laughs come both from the nice character work and from the ways in which it makes the gangster life look like an appropriate (or at least understandable) reaction to the indignities of life. Although it has the stylish look and strong action sequences of Luc Besson’s previous crime films, the fact that it’s a comedy makes it feel quite a bit different.
Robert De Niro plays Giovanni Manvoni — an American mafia boss who ratted on his fellow gangsters and is hiding out in France with his family under the witness protection program. The basic shtick is that he and his family are still ruthless thugs who react brutally to the day-to-day irritations of the world. Besson gains at least a small amount of ironic frisson from the fact that these thugs are also a very loving family. They are loveable monsters, somewhat like the Addams Family. He probably gets more mileage out of his exploration of Giovanni’s surprisingly thoughtful attempts to write his memoirs, but even moreso from the ways in which he draws the audience into the thug life as an appealing way to react to bad behavior from our fellow humans. I’m not going to say that the political critique here is very deep, but Giovanni’s reaction to an arrogant corporate CEO has a fair amount of populist rage in it. Likewise the payback to school bullies from the son and daughter.
If this is more a comedy than a serious examination of the issues, it still builds up to a climax in which we care about what happens to the family. Perhaps the deeper joke is that nobody is the good guy, and even the common townspeople are more than mean-spirited and selfish enough. More subtly, perhaps, is the unstated joke that everybody in this small town in Normandy speaks English, even as they complain about American cultural imperialism. More over-the-top is the extended sequence in which Giovanni is invited to watch an American movie with the local film club, and the film turns out to be one that De Niro himself starred in. (Hint: Martin Scorsese is an executive producer of The Family.)
This probably doesn’t rank with Besson’s best films, but it ain’t bad. Then again, it’s got Michelle Pfeiffer in it, and I’m a sucker for Michelle Pfeiffer.