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'The Family' is a sloppy mob comedy with a gleeful Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro is unusually awake in "The Family," a sloppy but likable mafia comedy from Eurotrash auteur Luc Besson ("Fifth Element").

Robert De Niro is atypically keyed-up in "The Family." Credit: Relativity Media LLC Robert De Niro is atypically keyed-up in Luc Besson's mafia comedy "The Family."
Credit: Relativity Media LLC

‘The Family’
Director: Luc Besson
Stars: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Eurotrash auteur Luc Besson has spent a career trying to duplicate Hollywood in France, often with America’s own superstars. There’s usually something lost in translation (as they say), but that’s a good thing: The world is better for having something as singularly nutty as “The Fifth Element,” with Bruce Willis, a blue tentacle opera diva and comic relief in the form of Ian Holm.

Besson can be credited as starting the still-going wave of fogie actioners, which he kicked to life with “Taken.” “The Family” also features an AARP-aged legend. But it’s for a more familiar, already well-established genre: Robert De Niro mob comedies. The onetime Rupert Pupkin plays Giovanni, an ex-boss from Brooklyn who’s turned rat and has since had to be scuttled, with his equally belligerent family (including matriarch Michelle Pfeiffer), from one new life in a new town to another, this time too-quaint Normandy.

De Niro has done this before, but no comedy has allowed him to beat or torture annoyances within an inch of their lives, all while still finding him simply incorrigible. (And it should be noted that De Niro is unusually engaged. He hasn’t been this lovable in ages.) The gleeful amorality on display in “The Family” is its most distinctly European trait. It’s not often in America that actual psychopaths go unpunished, and the characters here are always clearly cheered on, even as they, for instance, firebomb a supermarket whose staff proved stereotypically French-snooty. (Besson’s own country, and its penchant for heavy creams and artery-clogging butter, takes the brunt of the sadism.)

Though Besson’s style is sharp and confident — albeit essentially anonymous, not much resembling his previous work, visually — the writing and much else about is incredibly sloppy. One comic montage forgets to add jokes. Another potential showstopper set at a community movie night, featuring a not bad we-couldn’t-resist meta joke, leads to a rambling monologue that kills the grand build-up. Tommy Lee Jones, as Giovanni’s fed point man, has little to do but act Tommy Lee Jones-ish. Pfeiffer is game, but her Brooklyn accent (shades of her great “Married to the Mob” Jersey turn) goes in and out.

It’s also incredibly likable, even charming, in a questionable way. Though the plot hinges on them being found by their nemeses — a promise that should have led to a more gonzo climax than the one provided — the film is no rush to get there. Most of it shambles amiably, sometimes loopily. The silly and hilariously convoluted manner in which their location is leaked is appreciated, but it's the gratuitous use of Vincente Minnelli's Sinatra-Martin great "Some Came Running" as a plot point that pushes it just over the edge.

 
 
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