REview: ‘The Family’ has some strong points, but something’s missing

The fish-out-of-water comedy and organized crime thriller ingredients of “The Family” fail to coalesce into the dark comedy filmmakers were going for in Robert De Niro’s latest journey into Mafia-land.

De Niro stars as Fred Blake, an American living abroad with his family in France. Before coming to Europe, he went by Giovanni Manzoni and was a brutal mafioso who testified against many of his former compatriots, including a ruthless don who’s put a $20 million price on his head. Joining Fred in witness protection are his wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer, “Dark Shadows”), and teenage kids, Belle (Dianna Agron, “Glee”) and Warren (John D’Leo, “Cop Out”). They’re overseen by a grizzled FBI agent, played of course by Tommy Lee Jones (“Men in Black 3”).

Any illusions I had that this would be a zany comedy in the vein of, say, “Sister Act” evaporated early on with the family’s weary trek to their new abode in Normandy. And my assumption that Fred might be a reformed wiseguy disappeared shortly thereafter as he buried a body in his new backyard.

The family’s struggles adapting to their new surroundings go as you’d expect, although a bit more violently for Belle, in a scene that I, as a father, nevertheless felt like applauding. There are laughs but there’s a much darker undertone.

That in and of itself is not a bad thing, but those elements never quite blend, nor does one win out over the other. Director Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”), who co-wrote the screenplay, was obviously going for both comedy and drama, with a decent dose of action, but it feels like you’re watching parts of a couple different movies.

De Niro entertains as Fred, unsure how to lay low and blend in and looking for purpose. He tries by writing his memoirs, the only way he gets to really be himself – that is when he’s not attempting to remedy the new house’s plumbing issues through methods that are too excessive to take seriously and too brutal to be funny. Pfeiffer gives depth to the devoted-but-long-suffering Maggie, though a potential subplot contrasting her religious convictions with her family’s criminal tendencies isn’t explored thoroughly.

Belle and Warren are interesting, particularly in their avoidance of the typical cinematic sibling rivalry. Argon mixes the innocent and violent aspects of Belle’s character better than the film’s dual natures. The subplot involving her falling for a college student teaching at her school is the most developed beyond Fred’s arc, although it leads to a scene laughingly described in the rating information as “brief sexuality.” What happens makes sense in the context of the story, but the way it’s shown is excessive, especially considering Argon is playing a 17-year-old girl.

It feels like there could have been additional material for most of the characters in the film. Perhaps Besson was going for a less-is-more approach, but again, it didn’t pan out.

The film does build to a very suspenseful climax where the movie briefly embraces its darker, more realistic elements. But the resolution comes with a few too many coincidences, even for Hollywood. And once it’s over, so is the film, with little resolution or explanation. I want to think maybe they were going for some sort of commentary on the endless cycle of violence, but I could be reaching.