The Family review

Last week, I had a flu jab. I’d gone to see my GP seeking merely a repeat prescription.  Maybe the doctor thought I was looking a little peaky.  Maybe my underlying health and low immune system played a role. Maybe I’ve just reached that age where life is an uncontrolled downhill roll and all I have to look forward to is a life of flu jabs, mild irritation and the increasingly voluminous pensioner scrotum one can expect from advancing dotage. Maybe we shouldn’t have discussed Korean director Kim Sung-su’s imminent disaster flick The Flu.

Regardless, my doctor retrieved a small phial of flu vaccine from a fridge, asked me to roll up my sleeve and rammed the needle home in my deltoid, delivering a barely noticeable intramuscular injection.  Nothing memorable.  A tiny prick, mildly unpleasant and gone, forgotten by the time I’d put my coat back on and left the consulting room.

Besson’s new film, The Family, is much like a flu jab: a mildly unpleasant experience that’s soon forgotten. Unlike a flu jab, however, there’s no discernible upside, no positive gain, no enrichment of your life. Sticking your head in a washing machine and repeating “I am a mole and I live in a hole” for the film’s 111-minute running time is a far more rewarding use of your time.

A black comedy thriller that provides neither amusement nor thrills, The Family sees De Niro’s former gangster Giovanni hiding out in France with his brassy wife Maggie (Pfeiffer) and his teenage son and daughter (D’Leo and Glee’s Agron) under the protection of Jones’s weary FBI man after shopping his former BFFs and entering Witness Protection. Despite the need to remain incognito, there’s a huge price on their heads after all. The family are far from discreet, the kids running protection rackets at school and every member committing random acts of violence, vandalism and murder which force them to regularly relocate, assuming new identities. Stuck in a rut, Giovanni decides to pen his Goodfellas-style memoirs but just as the family are settling into their new lives, an army of stereotypically Guido-esque hit men arrive in town intent on wiping them out. Has the family’s luck finally run out?    

Like the Croissan’wich, The Family is an unsatisfying collision of French and American culture that you’re fairly sure you enjoyed at the time but leaves you feeling hollow and empty afterwards much like French rap. Leaving aside the legality of the FBI operating on foreign soil (they can’t) or that the US Witness Protection Program is actually the province of the US Marshals, you know, like what Jones once won the Oscar for playing, not the FBI, The Family’s just dumb, its stars merely going through the motions. While the vacuous Gravity has been much-lauded for its visual effects, it can’t hold a candle to The Family which appears to have gone to incredible expense to render a dead-eyed, Gollum-style, CGI Jones simulation and place it in rural France while De Niro doesn’t just phone it in, he wanders through the film with the distracted air of someone who’s playing Candy Crush on their iPhone. Meanwhile, Pfeiffer revisits the screechy chav of Married To The Mob with an extra 30 years on the clock and D’Leo and Agron are adequate but uninvolving as the kids, making the most of their underwritten roles and obviously resigned to merely enjoying their extended vacation in the French countryside.

The biggest problem with The Family, however, is director Besson. Never the most subtle or nuanced of filmmakers, Besson’s energies in recent years have mostly been spent producing the likes of the Stath’s The Transporter series, Liam Neeson’s Taken films or Guy Pearce’s Escape From New York IN SPACE! flick Lockout – dumb, fun B-movies bursting with rude enthusiasm to be taken with a pinch of salt. The Family, on the other hand, is plodding; its violence is graphically nasty and offensive (an innocent family is bloodily murdered and their fingers cut off and posted to the US all to a comedy soundtrack, countless minor French characters are beaten, brutalised and murdered for comic effect), its tone uneven, its humour obvious and cartoonish.  

Crucially, however, we care about none of the film’s characters. De Niro’s Mafia bigwig is a murderous sociopath who grassed up his mates, Pfeiffer a ruthless cougar arsonist, the kids chips off the old block, the secondary characters buffoonish stereotypes of Guido gangsters and condescending Frogs. They’re all thoroughly unlikable, you actively want them all dead.  It’s almost as if Besson has deliberately set out to make a lazy, forgettable film, possibly as some kind of Producers-style tax dodge. Even his usually reliable action scenes are messy, boring. Ultimately, perhaps Besson is to be admired; he’s succeeded in making a film with De Niro, Pfeiffer, Jones and the pretty, least-annoying one from Glee that’s destined to be, at best, a pub trivia question.

The Family at IMDb

The Family London press conference

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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