Back in the 1990s, Robert De Niro was reportedly so incensed at being quizzed in Paris about an elite prostitution ring, he vowed never to set foot in France again. It seems he’s had a change of heart in recent years, returning to the country to head the Cannes 2011 jury and now as the star of Luc Besson’s black comedy about a mafia grass in the witness protection programme.
Looking at the results, you can’t help wishing Bob’s initial resolve had held firm. The Family turns out to be a desperately uneven affair, uncertain if it’s a fish-out-of-water satire, a Sopranos -style portrait of mobster-clan dynamics, or a bloody thriller about poulets coming home to roost.
Yes, there are some yuks to be had watching De Niro’s bored patriarch Fred, testy wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and their two kids (played by Glee ’s Dianna Agron and The Wrestler ’s John D’Leo) stick it to the snooty locals by terrorising a tardy plumber or destroying the village grocery.
But given they’re meant to be lying low, their actions become rapidly nonsensical, not least when it alerts the very people they’re trying to hide from to their whereabouts and new identities.
Besson’s film – adapted from a novel by Tonino Benacquista, co-writer of Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped – takes an even sharper turn for the preposterous when Fred is asked by the town’s film club to ruminate on GoodFellas ’ authenticity.
No wonder Tommy Lee Jones looks so sour as Fred’s flummoxed handler, his pained expression becoming an apt metaphor for a picture that is treading water long before De Niro’s vengeful ex-associates catch up with him.
Besson at least rallies in the closing stages to deliver a moderately exciting finale that predictably reduces much of the sleepy Normandy setting to smouldering rubble. But as the French might say, it’s trop peu, trop tard.
Though it’s good to see Michelle Pfeiffer married to the mob again, she alone can’t redeem a lumbering farce that takes an unpleasantly sadistic glee in violence, murder and intimidation.