After an incredibly dismal summer at the movie theaters, we finally move into the fall season with the arrival of October, which brings with it such promising films as “Gravity” (Oct. 4), “Captain Phillips” (Oct. 11), and “12 Years a Slave” (Oct. 18). In the meantime, if you want to bridge the gap, you could do a lot worse than “The Family,” a dark comedy about the Mafia starring two-time Oscar-winner Robert De Niro and three-time Oscar-nominee Michelle Pfeiffer. Although the film certainly isn’t going to contend for any Academy Awards, it is nevertheless refreshingly entertaining.
De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, a former Mafia boss, who ultimately informs on the activities of one Don Luchese (Stan Carp), former colleague who ends up in prison. Because he knows Luchese has plenty of connections on the outside to help him seek revenge, Manzoni, his wife, Maggie (Pfeiffer), their daughter, Belle (Dianna Agron), and their son, Warren (John D’Leo), enter the witness protection plan. Posing as the Blake family, they all take refuge in a small village in Normandy, where their handler is FBI agent Robet Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).
Because much of the humor in this film depends heavily on the element of surprise, I have to be very careful not to give away too much, and so please bear with the intentional vagueness. The Manzonis/Blakes are an interesting family. Giovanni harbors a secret on the long trek to Normandy, and we find out what it is shortly after their arrival. He also decides to pose as a writer as part of his cover.
Despite her apparent calmness, Maggie is tough as nails and soon shows that she is no one to be toyed with. Not long after her family settles into the little village, she goes to the super market in search of some peanut butter. The manager rudely informs her that none is available and then proceeds to make insulting remarks about Americans in general within her hearing. Maggie’s reaction reveals a lot about her character.
The old saying that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree certainly applies to Belle and Warren. As you would expect, their biggest challenge is in adjusting to a new school. Belle is a beautiful girl, and it’s quite predictable that she triggers a massive testosterone attack among the boys at school, and when a group of them attempt to hit on her, they find out that Belle is not easily rung. It’s my favorite segment in the entire film.
Warren also has some problems early on with the school bullies, but he soon finds a way to cope with them, and the result is quite amusing. The way he ingratiates himself with just the right students is a thing a beauty.
Giovanni and Maggie have their own issues adjusting, particularly with their new dwelling. When Maggie turns on the water faucet in the kitchen sink, a flow of disgusting brown water greets her, and getting a plumber to respond to her calls proves to be as difficult as pulling teeth from a worm. But Giovanni shows some great initiative in solving the problem.
Now while the Blakes are busy coping with their new environment, Luchese has launched an all-out search for them from his prison cell, and it’s only a matter of time until his minions find out where they are and head toward Normandy to exact revenge. This sets up an action-packed conclusion.
Although “The Family” is not a great film, it is satisfactorily entertaining mainly because the actors who portray the Manzonis/Blakes blend together so well. All of them really sell the family dynamics throughout the movie, and they also succeed beautifully in making us care about their characters despite the fact that they have been associated with crime.
Of course playing a part in a film about the Mafia is nothing new to Pfeiffer, who was the star of “Married to the Mob,” the 1988 Mafia comedy directed by Jonathan Demme. In “The Family’s” production notes Pfeiffer explained what attracted her to the film and offered some insight into her character.
“They (the Manzonis) take a genre that I love in a new direction. This is really about how they interact with each other and the outside world, which is a great source of humor in the film. They are their own worst enemies and impossible to protect because they just can’t behave. It’s really about the family connection and that overrules all, no matter the circumstances.
“She (Maggie) does have a temper, but she always hits the ground running and tries to make the best of the situation to keep her family’s spirits up. She has accepted that this is now their way of life, but she still has some issues and her rage has got to come out somewhere. She’s humiliated by the whole experience, especially the anti-American sentiment that they keep encountering in France. She tries to fit in, to do good, and to respect the culture that she’s in, but she feels she is being treated unfairly.”
De Niro is perfectly cast as the irrepressible Giovanni, who never shies away from taking matters into his own hands. His resolution of the water problem is a perfect example. In the production notes, De Niro said he was drawn to the film because of its originality.
“It’s an unusual take on the mobster genre with a novel storyline. My character was a crime boss in New York, but he turned in his whole crew. When he entered the Witness Protection Program with his family, they were sent to France, but every place they have been resettled, they end up in hot water. Now they are in the middle of nowhere and it might as well be Mars. The situation can seem a bit surreal, but the character is very real and relatable.”
“The Family” achieves a nice blend of comedy and drama, and if offers a welcome change of pace from a lot of the trash that has polluted the theaters throughout the summer. It earns the final score of a very respectable seven, and the ending definitely is set up for a sequel. If indeed the Manzonis surface again, I look forward to spending more time with them.