A French/American co-production, Luc Besson’s The Family takes place among the quaint rural villages of Normandy, telling the tale of a supposedly Italian-American family, but it’s so steeped in toothless, homogenized non-specificity that it could have played out anywhere, with any variant of cultural stereotypes installed in place of actual characters. Opening with a brief scene of a different family, unceremoniously slaughtered by a leather-gloved assassin while eating dinner, the movie dispenses this initial unit with jarring haste, long before the scene has any chance to establish dramatic logic. The film continues in this manner, riffing on boilerplate comedic material, piling up bodies as lazy punchlines, never exhibiting even a shred of the patience, control, or restraint that would cause any of this to feel remotely significant or memorable.
After ratting out his former mafia cohorts, Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) begins a new life as Fred Blake, sent off with his family to witness protection in France. As we meet them, the Blakes are once again on the move, after being uprooted by some recent nasty business on the Riviera. It’s easy to guess what may have transpired, since the response of each of these roughly sketched ciphers is to greet any unpleasant situation with flat, gratuitous violence, resulting in a repetitive series of gags that all follow the same basic formula: A local does something annoying and French, and one our sociopathic heroes strikes back the American way, via ruthless beatings or a well-placed explosive device. The fact that we get no sense of these people beyond the most routine dynamics is a problem, but it’s also an inherent condition of the cartoon world they inhabit, one in which predictable stasis wins out over any semblance of character or development.
This is seen specifically in Giovanni, who by writing his memoirs briefly stares down his violent mobster legacy only to realize he’s a pretty great guy after all via a dumb whacking montage that serves as another squandered opportunity for visual flair. It’s hinted that the Blakes have been in hiding for roughly six years, and it’s at first puzzling why their story didn’t pick up immediately after their entry into the program. But as this single issue is buried by dozens of other questions, it becomes apparent that any questions of consistency are moot. This is the kind of empty, affectless story that could repeat itself in dozens of different permutations, playing out free from narrative strictures in a recursive sitcom loop, like some misbegotten mob version of The Munsters.
Even this level of silliness, however, could work if presented with any real thought. Yet despite its mounting incoherence, the film stubbornly refuses to implicate itself in the joke, expecting adoration for this nasty family, even hedging into bathos at inopportune moments. The actors grant the characters a reasonable amount of chemistry, but this remains the sort of movie where everything is lifeless and compressed, from the shallow-focus close-ups that rob scenes of any fluidity to Besson’s complete inability to summon a sense of place, forsaking landscape or establishing shots and restricting most of the action to the family’s rustic old farmhouse. This internality is fitting, because all these jokes about inedible food and weird locals could have been stuck anywhere, and seem to have randomly landed here, in a film whose only distinguishing characteristic is how big a mess it makes of its already meager ambitions.