Some things are just a mystery. Robert De Niro’s latest film “The Family” has all the right ingredients, but something goes terribly wrong with the recipe. Even with major star power alongside De Niro that includes Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones, it lacks that emotional pull that makes you care about the characters. What could have been delicious and dark turns mundane and flat. The batter simply doesn’t rise on this one.
Read any of the summaries of this film, and the plot looks promising. Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) has built his reputation over the years as a mob boss who means business. He and his associates take no enemies.
With sensibilities that lie somewhere between those of Tony Soprano and John Gotti, Manzoni has all the stereotypical mobster trappings. He appears to be invincible, and he sees himself as a reasonable man who expects people to follow through or suffer the consequences. Those consequences usually involve some creative brand of murder or broken bones, but Manzoni prides himself in his ethics.
In the family relationship department, Manzoni’s deep connections with his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), his son Warren (John D’Leo) and daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) sustain him amidst all the craziness. They share his view of the world, but on their own terms. Maggie has a proclivity for torching grocery stores if the manager crosses her. Warren cuts a mean protection racket at his local high school, and Belle’s been known to hospitalize any unsuspecting boy foolish enough to make a pass.
All their antics would make sense in a world where gangsters rule, but thanks to Manzoni’s decision to testify against a former colleague, the family’s in the witness protection program. They’ve been given stern directives from Agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) whose job it is to protect them. They really need to keep a low profile.
Stansfield’s difficult position becomes even more complicated when every member of the family goes out of his or her way to carry on their gangster ways. After several abrupt relocations, Stansfield has at last moved the family to a small, backward village in Normandy, France. It’s still not far enough from the mob whose determination to payback Manzoni the rat knows no bounds or boundaries.
Scenes between Academy Awards winners De Niro and Jones should have been keen-edged and full, but the chemistry never flows. As the comedic tone begins to ebb and the plot grows darker, the return diminishes even further. What could have been complex and multi-layered turns mushy and uneven, and where’s the fun in that?
Rated R for violence, language and brief sexuality.
Marilyn Robitaille has been writing movie reviews for the Empire-Tribune since 1999.