The Family reviewed by Armond White for CityArts

By Armond White

When the American mobster family the Blakes join the Witness Protection Program and relocate to a small town near Normandy in France, they soon learn what the natives think of them: “They expect color, noise, excess.” That’s also a comment on how the gangster genre is perceived globally. In The Family, director Luc Besson satirizes those expectations through the impossibility that the Blakes (formerly the Manzonis) might break free of their past. Violence is the way they resolve every problem for two reasons: It’s their habit and it’s also human nature.

Fred, formerly Giovanni, (played by Robert DeNiro), discovers French workers and politicians to also be shakedown artists. His wife Maggie meets prejudiced snobs and petty thieves. Their teenage children, son Warren (John D‘Leo) deals with school bullies and daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) fights off one romantic cad after another.

This is essentially a sitcom premise, which should be fittingly satirical since the gangster genre’s basic crime-and-horror template dominates contemporary television–from putrid dramas like Sons of Anarchy to immorality tales like Dexter and Breaking Bad. They’re all descended from The Sopranos which for some ungodly reason has bowdlerized and traduced the impact of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy by domesticating the thrill of illicit aggression. (Warning: There is no moral point to the Godfather if Part III is left out of consideration as is now fashionable to do. It’s as if all Godfather knock-offs attempted to erase the profound moral reckoning of Part III–and Besson knows this, too.) Going beyond tales of right and wrong, the post-Godfather gangster genre, on TV and on screen, became ultra cynical, thus normalizing illegal and improper behavior.

This cultural catastrophe becomes the real subject of The Family; the task of assessing it falls to Luc Besson, who may know more about genre filmmaking than any other contemporary director-producer outside of Hollywood, yet can’t quite pull it off.

Those two reasons for the Blakes’ relapse also trip-up Besson: He has to deal with American vulgarity as well as the French admiration for it. The Family becomes almost schizoid as it indulges the genre turpitude it also attempts to critique. Besson ignites a primitive, visceral urge as the All-American ethnic Blakes fight for their lives (once the Brooklyn mobsters Fred ratted on finds their hideaway and come gunning for them), yet at this point in cultural history, the genre has become so politically and literally corrupt (recall Bill and Hilary Clinton posing as the Sopranos in a campaign ad; recall President Obama telling Oprah “I love The Sopranos;” recall The Soprano’s degeneration from The Godfather’s esthetic and moral complexity and the further decline of that show’s many imitations). Besson’s satirical impulse backfires.

There’s near-brilliant potential: DeNiro echoes his own significant role in the genre’s recent high points (from Mean Streets to The Godfather, Part II) as does Pfeiffer (in her evocation of the less familiar Married to the Mob, Scarface). Their big-time movie-star pair-up is beautifully comic, especially with their mature undercurrents: Giovanni is asked “What’s your angle?” and Maggie prays “I know, Jesus, my family tries your patience.” It could be that working with these Yankee icons (and with a script by Yankee TV writer Michael Caleo–whose best line is Belle’s observation of “the range of emotion in one word: fuck”) brings out the Besson’s inner nerd and stifles his revisionist instincts. He neglects his own French cinema heritage of philosophical contemplation that he recently brought to the poetry of genre filmmaking.

Besson starts with a sophisticated parody of the voice-over narration in GoodFellas and genuine homegrown antipathy (“In 44 they liberate us now they overrun us”) but those combined are even more problematic than Marlon Brando doing The Freshman where at least his personal need to talk-back at the immense impact of The Godfather demonstrated a brave, pop-savvy moral reflection. The Family needs the sense of community unity that buttresses Edgar Wright’s satirical genre-and-society trilogy; instead, it clearly goes off the track when a reference to Minnelli’s Some Came Running (a sociological melodrama) is jettisoned for something more obvious.

And given the corruption/popularity of the gangster genre, it’s difficult to laugh when a priest tells Maggie “Your family is the incarnation of evil and your life is a pact with the devil”–concerns Abel Ferrara faced in The Funeral (1996) but that The Sopranos never did–or when Giovanni, contemplating his memoir, asks himself, “What’s a man’s life worth?” Besson never neglected those matters before.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair