Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Cinema File #255: "The Family" Review

You'd probably be hard pressed to find a list of the greatest American films of all time that doesn't have The Godfather somewhere in the top ten (if not the top five). It was one of those extremely rare cases of a movie that was so original and proved to be so culturally indelible that it essentially created its own genre, providing the blueprint for and standard by which we judge any ensuing movie that dares to tackle the same subject matter. Its a style that's been ripped off, parodied, honored, dishonored, and run through pretty much every possible permutation of cross-genre meddling short of Mafia Space Epic (at least until Star Wars gets there). If any director was capable of finding a fresh spin on this well-worn material, one would think it might be someone as prolific and eclectic as Luc Besson, but while his approach in The Family does result in a mostly charming and entertaining experience, it ultimately feels a little too beholden to the canon it should be trying to transcend.

The film centers around the pseudonymous Blakes, an ex (nuclear) crime family stuck in the Witness Protection Program following their father's testimony against his former Mafia boss, now living in France to hide from retribution. While most family-centric comedies mine intra-family differences and dysfunction for humor, the family in The Family is if anything too much alike. They get along too well, just only with each other, and not with anyone else, at least when all their neighbors aren't amoral criminals like themselves. This isn't the first set of fake identities they've been given, and as we see them working together to fall back on old patterns, you get the impression that no single member of the family was responsible for them failing to maintain their cover the previous times. As in everything, one assumes that whatever they accomplish for good or for ill is a team effort. Its refreshing to have a movie family this close knit without artificial complications thrown in for dramatic convenience, but this inevitably establishes an Us Vs. Them dichotomy between the Blakes and essentially French culture itself, which in hindsight probably only had enough juice to make the trailer look funnier than the movie, and in the end it gets old pretty fast.

Another problem is the tone, which as you might expect from the man who brought us The Fifth Element is simply all over the place. The melding of lighthearted comedy with brutal violence is something that can be done well, and has been many times in the past, but you might not realize just what a fine line it is for a movie to walk until it is done this badly. Tonally The Family is two kinds of Mafia movies haphazardly crammed into one, a farcical parody along the lines of DeNiro's Analyze This, and a serious action drama. There are no rules in this universe. Sometimes the father attacks people who annoy him without consequence, only for the film to flash out revealing it to be a fantasy, but then other times the attacks are real, but depicted just as cartoonishly. The climax is an explosion of over the top action and gun play that feels like the ending to a completely different movie than the one you've been watching for the last hour, and after all the dust settles, none of it really amounts to much for the characters or the narrative. It's just another week in the life of the family. Why did I bother?

The Family feels more like a collective character study than a full fledged movie, with an interconnected group of fully realized and fleshed out protagonists desperately in search of a movie worthy of how interesting they are. Each member of the Blake clan is equally fun and engaging to watch as they acclimate to their new surroundings, and each of them is given at least one or two moments to shine, which is more than I can say for most family units in movies. The son stands out in particular, using his self-taught criminal acumen to manipulate his way to the top of the food chain at his new school in probably the best sub plot of the film. The problem is that the whole thing feels suspended in a sort of narrative stasis, as the audience becomes trapped in the same waiting game as the characters, with no clear goal in mind except surviving and not getting into trouble until they either move on to the next town or the people hunting them eventually track them down (I'll leave it to you to guess which happens first). The characters are likable enough to pull you through and the tweaks on differences between American and French culture mostly spot on, but there's really very little to this story to justify the 90 minutes spent letting it unfold.

There was a moment in the year 2000 that will live on forever in cinematic infamy. It can be found in the film The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, when the still great Robert DeNiro in the guise of the villainous Fearless Leader stands in front of a mirror to re-enact the famous "You talkin' to me" monologue from Taxi Driver. In a fucking kids movie. Whenever I see DeNiro show up in any movie even remotely related to any of his iconic roles, I instantly cringe in anticipation of yet another similar betrayal. For whatever its worth, The Family is a movie that manages to have the guy from Goodfellas literally watching Goodfellas without the whole thing devolving into an insulting self referential mess. Its by no means one of the better Mafia movies by any metric, but its not nearly as bad as it could have been. Ordinarily I'd say that there's maybe just enough here to recommend as a rental down the road, but then that's only if there are no better options, and I'm pretty sure most video stores or online retailers have a copy of The Godfather in stock, so really, there's very little point.

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