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Article by Teddy Durgin

The Family That Slays Together, Stays Together

There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about the emergence of "anti-heroes" in mainstream entertainment, TV specifically. The popularity of such shows as "Breaking Bad," "Dexter" and "Mad Men" shows that y'alls is rootin' for some pretty unsavory, unscrupulous characters. But this kind of "fandom" has been around for decades in the form of mobster icons - really ever since James Cagney famously smashed a grapefruit in a dame's face in 1931's gangster classic, "The Public Enemy," on through 40 years later to Marlon Brando's Don Corleone making wiseguys offers they can't refuse, to more recently Tony Soprano throwing his weight around. A film like "The Family" asks us to root for a family of anti-heroes, the Manzonis. Patriarch Giovanni Manzoni (Robert DeNiro) is a former Brooklyn mob boss who snitched on a rival gangster and is now in Witness Protection along with his family. The problem is the Manzonis can't stop being who they are, even once they've re-settled in a small town in France under new names and new identities. So, when Giovanni has a problem with a local plumber, he doesn't go on the Internet and give him a bad consumer rating. He takes a Louisville Slugger to his knees and elbows. When his wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), is humiliated in a local grocery store by the elitist French manager, she doesn't take her business elsewhere. She fire bombs. When teenage son Warren (John D'Leo) is bullied in school, he doesn't go to his principal. He sets up an extra-curricular crime network and has his sophomore enforcers give the bullies a return beatdown. And teenage daughter Belle (Dianna Argon)? Don't get fresh with her. She'll beat ya with a tennis racket. For Tommy Lee Jones' federal Agent Robert Stansfield, assigned to keep the Manzonis safe and hidden, the job is like herding kittens - violent, unstable, Sicilian kittens. Eventually, the family's exploits attract the attention of a jailed mob boss back in the States who has had a hit out on them for years. Before long, a team of mob hitmen descend on the little French town where Giovanni and his family are hiding out. The film is a black comedy/action flick, and the two don't always mix. Director Luc Besson knows how to raise the stakes and deliver a climax that is genuinely tense. But he's less successful mining consistent laughs from this premise. There's a fine line in trying to pull off this kind of material. DeNiro hitting a greedy plumber with a baseball bat for trying to bilk him out of money? Three times, it's funny. Twenty-three times... eh, not so much. But there are other points in the film where this kind of dark humor works and works really well. Surprisingly, it works better with the two kid characters. They actually find the right notes to play in their scenes of retribution. I guess most people can look at the way Warren exacts revenge on schoolyard bullies and say to themselves, "Wow, I wish I had HIS stones back in the day!" I also think there was a thicker, richer screenplay for "The Family" at some point that got streamlined, but nevertheless retains a few old elements of its earlier version. There is a bit about a politician back in Washington who is threatened by Giovanni writing his memoirs that seems to have been an important subplot at some point in the film's development that is sort of left dangling in the final edit. Actually, everything about Giovanni writing his story ends up being a whole hunk of nothing and wouldn't have been missed had it been edited out altogether. Nevertheless, I am giving "The Family" a recommend. The parts of it that are great are really quite great. But if you do see it, be prepared for a high level of violence. Then again, if you have been regular watchers of "Breaking Bad," "Boardwalk Empire," "The Sopranos" and other comic-violent anti-hero programming, this is going to be right up your dark alley.

"The Family" is rated R for violence, language and brief sexuality.

 

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