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‘Family’ mostly succeeds, but misses chances to be funny

By Gary Clift

Screenwriter and Director Luc Besson gets right to it in his new movie “The Family.” Robert DeNiro drives his wife and teen-aged kids to their new home in a village in Normandy, France. Then, while their FBI minders (headed by a character played by Tommy Lee Jones) are distracted, he takes a corpse out of the trunk of his car and buries it in the garden.

This generally successful old-guy movie plays around constantly with the mix of good and bad in its characters. The “Blakes” and their French neighbors do both good and bad things, and maybe the neighbors do fewer of the former than the latter. Certainly each of the “Blakes,” a family in the witness protection program, does stuff we like and stuff we don’t.

Stoic young Warren (John D’leo) is enterprising and hard working, which is good. He is a forger, a fixer, and an extortionist at the school he attends with his femme fatal sister. Belle (Dianna Argon) is charming but can turn ruthless if provoked, beating a flirtatious local teen senseless with a wooden tennis racket and bashing the face of a girl who hesitates when asked to share a cell phone.

Ma (Michelle Pfeiffer in her best turn in years and years) wants to get along with everybody, but blows up the local grocery store with an improvised explosive device when she hears a clerk talking anti-American smack. Her confession scandalizes the parish priest, but she does visit the sanctuary to pray nearly every morning. She’s praying for help in remonstrating with guys like the grocery clerk.

Dad is really the weakest and least interesting of the four characters. This super-snitch who ratted on his own New York Mafia family is writing his memoirs on a portable typewriter, pausing only to address the brown color of his tap water. In seeking clear H2O he hospitalizes a plumber, drags a fertilizer company executive behind his car, and blows up a big industrial turbine.

And while all this settling-in is going on, the film keeps cutting to other things: to Dad’s nightmares of mob vengeance; to scenes from his earlier life; to look-ins on the FBI agents who are in town watching the trouble-prone “Blakes”; to Belle’s flirtation with and seduction of a young teacher; to the bizarre coincidences that take information of the “Blakes’” new location to a don in a cell in Attica prison; and to the actions of first one and then a gang of “Blake” hunting hit men.

Besson, the savior of the France-based international action-picture, gets us around from one to the other of these subplots pretty well, sacrificing only comedy, really, in the process. This should have been a much funnier film that it is. Actually almost all the laughs are present in the t.v. ads and previews.

But the film is not a waste of time. It can be interesting if not imaginative, and gives us images which are stagy but not familiar—the eight or so hat-wearing gunmen posed around their car-trunk armory in the narrow French street and the pimple-faced teen sliding one spaghetti strap from Belle’s shoulder and such like.

The violent climax is enough fun that it may go too fast. The fun inherent in the idea that the “Blakes” have everybody in the village over for a neighborhood barbecue doesn’t develop. And although it might seem that there was something comic to do in the public discussion session after the local showing of “Good Fellows,” Besson wasn’t able to figure out what it was that would get laughs.

So “The Family” misses chances to be funny but succeeds at most everything else it undertakes, right from the get-go.









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