French director Luc Besson's The Family opens with the murders of an innocent family -- mom, dad and two kids -- and then subsequently invites us to have a grand old comedic time following the adventures of a former Mob chieftain (Robert De Niro) hiding out in a small village in Normandy with his wife and two kids. (De Niro's clan were the intended victims of the massacre.)
But this movie's weird tonal shifts between comedy and violence go uncomfortably beyond the usual dark-comedy tropes and create a jarring dissonance.
Imagine listening to La Vie en Rose and gangsta rap simultaneously for two hours and you'll have an idea of what to expect.
The rustic Normandy hideaway is the latest in a series of addresses for De Niro's character, "Fred Blake," a.k.a. Giovanni Manzoni, who has a $20-million Mafia bounty on his leonine head. His wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer, offering a more malevolent variation of her Angela de Marco character from Married to the Mob) is not especially comfortable in France, but she copes by acting out her displeasure in psychotic ways. (A snooty storekeeper can expect to have his store fire-bombed.)
"Fred" is likewise prone to misbehaviour, including killing or maiming miscellaneous service providers for engaging in the kind of low-level larceny that was once Giovanni's bread and butter.
The kids, on the other hand, have adjusted pretty well. In her new school, beautiful teen Belle (Dianna Agron) asserts her don't-mess-with-me ethos by beating the crap out of a guy with a tennis racquet when he and his friends presume she is a slutty American. (This may be the only scene where the violence feels anywhere near appropriate to the situation.)
Fred's chip-off-the-old-block son Warren (John D'Leo) goes to classes with an entrepreneur's eye for weaknesses and desires he can exploit for his personal gain.
All this activity is a source of chagrin for the family's FBI caretaker, Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones, master of chagrin), who is alarmed to discover Blake, in his attempt to pass himself off as a writer, has actually taken to writing his Mob memoirs.
The witness-protection comedy has been done before. The Whole Nine Yards saw Bruce Willis's hitman Jimmy (The Tulip) Teduski attempting to live a peaceful, post-murderous life in Montreal. There's even a Winnipeg entry, Mob Story, starring John Vernon as a mobster on the lam who reasons no one would come looking for him in Winnipeg in winter.
Like The Family, it should have been so much funnier than it was.
How to explain this mess?
As a producer, Besson is not above using ultra-violence in the context of an action movie, such as Taken and The Transporter. Besson's early films, such as La Femme Nikita, effectively beat Hollywood to the punch when it came to creating a new sexy-violent approach to action cinema.
But here, one senses the coq au vin has come home to roost. Best guess: Besson is a self-loathing Frenchman who simply became unhinged when he realized that a French community decimated by the Normandy invasion of an American Mob family was a metaphor for Besson's Americanization of French cinema.
As in that other Normandy invasion, there's nothing very funny about it.