The Family is a movie whose R rating comes not solely from its content, but also because if you’re not over the age of 17, there’s a good chance you’re not going to get much of the humor from the film’s basic premise. If you haven’t seen Goodfellas — or Mean Streets, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Casino, etc. — or any of the other films in which Robert De Niro has played a gangster or similar character, you’re going to struggle to get behind and fully appreciate The Family.
The idea here is that the gangster character De Niro has played — all of them, combined into one — has gotten older, raised a family, and subsequently snitched on the gangsters with whom he used to do business. Now, he and his family are under the protection of a witness protection program run by CIA Agent (played by Tommy Lee Jones). The film begins with these people being moved to a small town in Normandy, France, presumably because the director is Luc Besson, or maybe De Niro and company just wanted to vacation there. Whatever the reason, this is where the majority of The Family takes place.
Along with De Niro, who plays a man masquerading under the name “Fred Black,” there is his wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), his son, Warren (John D’Leo), and his daughter, Belle (Dianna Agron). You don’t get a lot of tender moments in this film, however, which I was actually slightly happy to see. So many comedies force these dramatic moments which don’t fit with the rest of the film’s tone. This one doesn’t even try; it just wants us to laugh and gasp.
In fact, it hopes we do both of those things at the same time. Almost the only true “joke” in the film comes from the Blake family taking normal situations that we see every day and either imagining or acting out possibly the most violent outcome that could occur. Watching De Niro beat up a sleazy plumber, for instance, or Pfeiffer lighting the supermarket on fire, or Agron beating up a teenager who tried to make a move on her — all of these are incredibly over the top and violent, and that’s what the film hopes you laugh at, or with.
This is contrasted with Fred’s desire to sit down and write a book, the rest of the family’s attempt to blend in, and the FBI Agent’s hope that they don’t draw too much attention to themselves. The mafia is still looking for them, and while that only truly comes up near the end of the film for the guns-a-blazing climax, it still means that the antics of the Blakes are dangerous. It adds a little more risk to the proceedings, and doesn’t a little bit of risk makes things just that much more fun?
There’s little more to the film than that. We just watch familiar situations play out in violent and unexpected ways, and then there’s this big shootout at the end. With only one primary joke, this premise is liable to run out of steam before the end. However, because of the way the film sets itself up — it’s only about half an hour in when the film picks up the pace and reveals its true nature, while the final thirty minutes are almost all shootout — there’s only the hour in between which houses the humor. An hour of the same thing is a lot easier to tolerate than two.
Now, don’t get me wrong: There are a few different takes on this basic idea, and there are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments, which I won’t spoil. And if you like excessive and unnecessary violence when you don’t generally expect to see it, you’ll laugh a lot during The Family. I just wish there was more to it, although I can see why the filmmakers would think this is enough. For the most part, it is.
That slow start, while it’s basically just the family moving into their new home, will be off-putting to many. This is one of the film’s main issues; there isn’t a single laugh in the first 15-20 minutes. It’s not until the Blakes start going around town that things start to pick up, and get interesting and funny. That’s just too long for a film to start doing things we want to see. And if it was an attempt at deception, hoping to lull us into a slumber before the bombs go off, then the marketing department ruined that, didn’t they?
If nothing else, seeing Robert De Niro play a role he’s so comfortable with — even if he’s playing an older version than he’s used to — is such a good time that whenever he’s on-screen, you can’t help but smile. His interactions with Tommy Lee Jones are among the highlights, especially when the pair attend a film screening which doesn’t quite go as planned. Michelle Pfeiffer and the two younger actors get a lot less to do and play largely thankless roles.
Is The Family worth seeing? If you’re old enough to understand exactly where the film fits in the De Niro Gangster Movie Canon (which is now officially a thing), then I think so, if only to see the actor play the older, less serious version of a character he’s played countless times before. The excessive violence is as fun as it can be, there are some really funny moments and lines, and after it gets past its slow start, there aren’t many moments where you’ll be tempted to check the watch. You can do a lot worse than The Family.