"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
One day a future generation of forensic cinephiles will exhume Robert De Niro's career and find that, in fact, every character he ever played had Mob ties. The easy ones are the easy ones: "The Godfather Part II," "Casino," "Analyze This." Trickier will be proving that his cantankerous patriarch in "Meet the Fockers" was actually running numbers for the Gambinis back in the day, or that Frankenstein's monster hijacked cigarette trucks before he met his end by the lowercase-m mob.
Consider "The Family" not only a chalkmark on the simple side of that ledger, but a road map for it. De Niro plays Giovanni, a retired mobster who along with his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and two teenaged kids (Dianna Agron and John D'Leo) lives low in France under the protective watch of the FBI. All four of the lead characters conceal, barely, a penchant for violence. The mother may casually torch a grocery store when a cashier sneers at Americans behind her back; the daughter breaks a tennis racket over a French lad's head when he invites himself to touch the strap of her bra. But as a former mobster on the run from black-hatted assassins, De Niro has perhaps the shortest fuse of all. When he brandishes a baseball bat against a sleazy plumber while recalling an Al Capone quote ("The Untouchables"!) the inward turn seems complete. Even the De Niro characters who are trying to retire from organized crime continue to quote former gangsters De Niro once played.
Like the characters they play, the cast and crew of "The Family" can't escape their own resumes. Director Luc Besson ("The Fifth Element," "The Professional") shares the writing credit with a "Sopranos" screenwriter. Tommy Lee Jones is the family's FBI contact, another lawman in his long lineage of the same. De Niro manages to be funny and charming and menacing but can't quite disappear into Giovanni, perhaps because gangster characters are virtually synonymous with his face by now. "Scarface" alumna Pfeiffer, on the other hand, plays her mafiosa housewife with a touching world-weariness that suits the long-suffering partner of a marked man. The two parents and their two kids form a tight unit that does something relatively rare in film: They love one another deeply and wholly, as the only consistent features of a life on the run, and turn their anger outward from the family. They eat dinner together at the kitchen table every night. No one talks of the assaults, the arsons, the petty racketeering, even as everyone knows the shady stuff the others are capable of. They lie, but out of love, you see.
There are a couple of memorable lines in "The Family" — an early one, delivered by the father, says that knowing how much money you're worth is to know exactly when you'll die — but the cleverness of the writing is in building tone, a far tougher accomplishment than simply unspooling zingers, the usual hallmark of the gangster comedy. Besson creates living, breathing characters, worthy of your emotional investment, while signaling throughout that he's most interested in dark farce, and isn't above taking shortcuts to get there. The preposterous sequence via which the New York boss learns the family's whereabouts, in particular, is an extended wink and nudge. For this to work, the director seems to signal, we need to get the bad guys and the good guys together, even when the good guys are former bad guys who really don't seem to be such bad guys. And of course the audience can't put up a word of protest. We've seen this movie before, after all, if rarely in these shades, and only occasionally done so curiously well.