The Mafia penetrates American life so deeply and fully that the organization provides the subject for both gangster films and comedies (mobedies?). Although the mob's traditional business enterprises — robbery, drugs, prostitution, gambling, extortion, political corruption, etc., etc., usually accompanied by violence and bloodshed — hardly qualify as material for laughs, some writers and filmmakers extract humor from all that criminal behavior. This is America, after all, where some of the biggest crooks occupy positions in such honored capitalist institutions as banking, great corporations, and the stock market, which may be much less funny than mob activity.
In the latest mob comedy, "The Family," which could be the title of any number of gangster flicks, Robert De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, former Mafia big shot who ratted out his colleagues, now relocated to France as Fred Blake under the witness protection program, and posing as a writer. Along with his wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and teenage children, Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D'Leo), he moves from town to town, leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. As the action begins, in fact, his children complain about the odor in the car, which happens to emanate from a body in the trunk.
They set up house in a little village in Normandy, where, incomprehensibly, everybody seems to speak a passable brand of English, under the watchful eye of FBI agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), whose patience Giovanni sorely tests. At the same time, the big boss he betrayed, now in prison, sends an assassin in search of the family. The mob killer murders a number of people in his quest, in one nice touch chopping off a finger so the imprisoned boss can see if the fingerprints match his quarry's.
That constant, excessive violence sets the tone for most of the picture, appropriately reflected in the activities of the Manzonis. When some nasty Frenchmen in a supermarket make contemptuous remarks about Maggie and Americans in general, she firebombs the store. While her brother takes over the high-school rackets, Belle demonstrates the movie's athletic motif when she resists the sexual advances of a quartet of louts by beating the foie gras out of one of them with a tennis racquet; her father meanwhile uses a baseball bat to deal with a rude and recalcitrant plumber.
The picture reaches an explosive and really quite bloody climax when the assassin and a gaggle of hoodlums show up in town while the American writer Fred Blake speaks about the movie "GoodFellas," which of course featured De Niro, for the local film society.
Although "The Family" provides its share of laughs, the mixture of comedy and brutality attains a cartoonish level of excess that turns the movie into something of a self-parody. Nothing in the film, with the possible exception of the machinations of the imprisoned capo di tutti capi, even hints at plausibility. The wholesale slaughter of innocent people unsurprisingly somehow fails to amuse.
Many years ago Michelle Pfeiffer made her bones as a Mafia wife in "Married to the Mob," so she seems to have no problem playing Maggie, who apparently wants to be a better person — she goes to confession, but the kindly priest, apparently shocked by her revelations, eventually banishes her from the church. At the same time, her propensity for blowing up markets when she experiences ill treatment creates the same comic contradictions that permeate the film.
Unquestionably one of the finest actors of our time, the Robert De Niro of "The Family" is not the same remarkable artist who distinguished himself in "The Godfather II," "Raging Bull," "Cape Fear," "The King of Comedy," or a dozen other pictures. This is the sly, cute, mugging actor of "Analyze This," "Analyze That," "Meet the Parents," and "Meet the Fockers," simply going through some familiar motions with some familiar mannerisms, lines, and gestures. Like another accomplished star, his contemporary Jack Nicholson, De Niro too often takes the easy way out and simply plays himself. His performance all too precisely sums up the problem with "The Family."