September 14, 2013
Based on Tonino Benacquista’s novel “Malavita”, opinions on this strange little dark comedy — which marks a comedic departure for famed French action director Luc Besson — will likely be rigidly parked in one or the other of two camps.
Plenty in what we will call “Camp Nous Detestons” will see it as a laughably implausible revenge fantasy, glorifying criminals and violent behavior while simultaneously mining the worst societal clichés of both French and American ways of life. The French are rude and snobbish, and require cream in all foods, while the Americans are loud, classless and have underdeveloped palates. Speaking as a French American, I have seen evidence of all these traits at some point or another, but of course both countries have more depth and nuance of character.
So too does The Family, and that, along with the pitch-black humor therein, is what will drive the enthusiasm in “Camp Nous L’Aimons.”
To be fair, no one is likely to feel a passionate love for this movie if they can’t appreciate director Besson’s bloody aesthetic or are unaware of his penchant for high body counts and morally ambiguous antiheroes.
In The Family, he has taken qualities we have come to expect from the man who brought us La Femme Nikita, The Professional and District B13, and added comedy. With the exception of a rare departure like The Big Blue, those who know his work can always be sure of one thing: There will be bloody carnage.
It is true that the script has plot elements that stretch credulity further than an audience should be expected to accept. One in particular, which can’t be revealed lest it spoil, all but sucks the viewer completely out of the story. Let’s just say Messieurs “Coincidence” and “Synchronicity” can’t decide if they want the family saved or dead.
Also as a French American, I can tell you no tiny village, even in Normandy, would have an entire population willing to or able to speak exclusively in English. Still, the movie, for those who do not need to draw clear lines between villainy and heroism, is a fascinating meld of shocking violence and familial tenderness, a black comedy featuring characters who flip from kindness to cruelty in the span of 20 seconds.
They are sociopaths with hearts of gold for each other, and hearts of stone to those who cross or disrespect them in any way. It takes skill to create a movie where even part of the audience can root for four people who indiscrimately do things like nearly beat people to death or drag them tied to their car. The only moral center these four possess is based on their love of each other and their dog.
Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as Maggie and Giovanni, the husband and wife trying to make a new life in Normandy with witness protection, create a fascinating portrait of two people who can kill indiscriminately and show deep love and concern toward each other and their kids while genuinely believing themselves to be good.
They make the holes and troubles in the script forgivable, as do the great characters of their son and daughter Warren and Belle, played by John D’Leo and Dianna Agron. Warren is a 14-year-old monster in the making and yet audience members might find themselves applauding his creativity and invention.
How both the kids navigate their new school and find ways to either fit in or take charge is the stuff of epic teenage revenge dreams. There are no consequences, gratefully unlike real life. This is not a film you want your kids to learn from in any way other than…Really, it’s best to stop that sentence right there.
Whether they are awful to the rest of the world or not, they do love and support each other. For those in the audience willing to suspend judgment, the care and tenderness they show within the family make us want to see them survive the film. Because it is brought to us by Besson, that is far from certain, which makes the suspense and action hold our attention to the very end.
The Family is clearly not for everyone. For those with a wicked sense of humor, a dark side and a desire to buy into revenge and decisive action however morally questionable, by characters who could kiss you on the cheek one minute and beat you to a pulp the next, this film is twisted, funny and exciting, and the acting just adds to what is one of Besson’s better efforts in quite a while.