'Family' plays brutality and cultural contempt for laughs

REVIEW: If cultural treason were a capital offense, “The Family” director Luc Besson would be on death row.   |  ★★ out of 4 stars

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Michelle Pfeiffer, from left, Robert DeNiro, Dianna Agron and John D'Leo star in "The Family."

Photo: Jessica Forde/Relativity Media,

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If cultural treason were a capital offense, “The Family” director Luc Besson would be on death row. In this ultra-violent comedy about a New York mafia family hiding out in small-town France, Americans kick ass with mindless aggression, leaving the French on their derrières.

Fred Blake (Robert De Niro) is former mafioso Giovanni Manzoni, in witness protection with his wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and two teens after ratting out his former cohorts stateside. After having to move again, from the Riviera to Normandy because Fred couldn’t help but bump off a lobster salesman, the family sulkily settles in.

Despite the two American agents stationed across the street and their long-suffering boss (Tommy Lee Jones), they’re all back at the family pastime — murder and mayhem —before you can shake an assault rifle.

Insulted by a local grocer because she asked for peanut butter, Mom blows up half his store. Raised very unlike those coddled “Sopranos” siblings, the children (Dianna Agron of “Glee” and John D’Leo) spend their days at school scheming to take over the cigarette racket and beating up classmates.

Dad, ordered to keep a very low profile, dabbles in writing his memoir on an old typewriter, but becomes so fixated on the brown water coming out of his pipes that he ventures out to consult local tradesmen and bureaucrats, exacting punishment when they fail to please. In one great scene, Minneapolis theater fixture Dominique Serrand, as the town mayor, gets his fingers slammed in a drawer. All the blood and bruises thus far, however, are just foreplay for when the mob back home gets tipped off to the Blakes’ whereabouts.

De Niro (accused more often than not these days of phoning it in), Pfeiffer and Jones muster what they need to for their roles, and the story is as entertaining as it is preposterous. But in a cynical bid not only to make his movie more palatable to American audiences, but to play to obsolete World War II-era biases toward weak “frogs,” Besson disses his own countrymen.

Almost no French is spoken, because Yanks apparently are too illiterate or lazy to read a few subtitles. While it’s true that not everyone in France is slim, chic and handsome, this particular casting call for townsfolk extras must have made being homely and either spindly or dumpy a requirement. American high-school boys haven’t sported so many unpopped whiteheads since the 1950s. Even French cuisine is sneered at for excessive butter and cream.

The relentless gunplay at which Besson excels (“Taken,” “The Professional”) seems to double this time as a metaphor, a bellowing, chest-beating American anthem of the type so shrewdly satirized in “Team America: World Police.” At the preview screening I attended, the swells of knee-jerk laughter that followed each violent moment seemed to demonstrate that maybe that attitude shouldn’t be seen as satirical at all.

 

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

★★ out of 4 stars
  • the family

    ⋆⋆ out of four stars

    Rating: R for violence, language and brief sexuality.

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