Film Review: Besson blends dark comedy and thrill in ‘The Family'

Luc Besson has done it again. His contributions to the medium have been monumental if nothing else; as a screenwriter, he’s given us pictures like “Taken” and “Columbiana,” and as a director, he’s done “Leon: The Professional” and “The Fifth Element.”

But now with his latest film “The Family,” Besson has melted genres together yet held this film together with the same threads tonally, as director and co-writer (written with Michael Caleo) in his adaptation of the book by Tonino Benaquista.

In “The Family,” Robert De Niro plays former mob-man Giovanni Manzoni who snitched on his former cohorts and currently finds himself in witness protection. De Niro’s character is a bit of a problem for his handler Robert Stansfield, played marvelously by Tommy Lee Jones, partly because of how badly wanted Giovanni is by the people he helped turn in, and partly because of his family’s inability to keep a low profile with new identities.

On his latest stop within the system, Giovanni finds himself in Normandy as Fred Blake. His self-chosen cover is as a writer researching the Normandy invasion, but what he’s really writing is a memoir about his former life as a form of self therapy.

Giovanni’s stuck inside his new abode, so it’s through the rest of his family that we visit the rest of the French city.

His wife, newly named Maggie, played pitch perfect by Michelle Pfeiffer, has problems with the slow pace of life that Europe has to offer, as well as the overall prejudices that the French have with Americans. She spends most of her time yearning to play hostess as she did to the mob bosses with whom her husband used to associate, yet suffices her needs to some degree be sharing her culinary creations with the two men stationed as guards and watchmen over this family.

The children are where the real fireworks fly however, for the dents made by the parents—and there are many—seem like small potatoes compared with the impact made by these newly enrolled students.

Their seven-teen year-old daughter, now called Belle, played with sweet yet savage intensity by Dianna Agron, proves the most violent, and certainly sadistic, of the entire Blake family. And their four-teen year-old son, given the name Warren, played by a surprising suave John D’Leo, tears through his high school existence like a professional mafia prodigy would, running so many angles on anyone and everyone that it’s almost hard to keep up.

During the first half of “The Family,” chaos ensues towards the darkest sides of comedy—some imaginable, some not—but no one seems outside of their bounds or unbelievable. It’s one of the films biggest strengths. The only real weakness “The Family” shows is when it pours on the sentimentality too heavy, or when it turns toward romanticizing the former life that Giovanni and his family had.

The latter half of the film is where it looks more like a Besson film, because that’s when the family’s past life catches up with them—something on which the film constantly hints and eventually hinges. “The Family” goes from comedic darkness to hair-raising action that isn’t much brighter.

Wielding a double-edged sword, Besson ties us in knots as the narrative unfolds, yet when the reckoning comes down, those tangled strings are not the ones on which the director pulls. Complex realities like the unpredictability of happenstance make “The Family” equal parts comedy and terror. Well done.

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