Besson makes quiet directing return with pleasant ‘Family’

Besson makes quiet directing return with pleasant 'Family' (Image 1)

It's been 14 years since director Luc Besson last directed a live-action film that received a wide release in the United States (“The Messenger: Joan of Arc”).

Sure, he has stayed extremely busy with his ventures in producing (“Taken,” “Transporter”) and animation (the “Arthur and the Invisibles” trilogy), but many (including myself) have wondered what happened to the guy who knew how to create super fun action (“The Fifth Element”) and personal drama (“The Professional”).

I tried to keep my expectations low for “The Family,” especially after the debacle last year involving the horrid “Darling Companion” (which was Lawrence Kasdan's first film in nine years). Since I went into “Companion” with high hopes and left furious, the goal was to at least not raise my expectations so Besson could also dash them expertly.

While I'm not sure that “The Family” would have disappointed had I entered with high expectations, I definitely did not expect a film as pleasant, charming and simple. It's an action/ comedy that unfolds at an extremely casual pace, doesn't much take itself seriously and seems content to focus on the small character moments instead of aiming for intensity.

The film also has massive plot holes and more than a fair number of predictable clichés, but it's so enjoyable along the way I really didn't much care. I was smiling throughout the film.

Robert DeNiro stars as Giovanni Manzoni, a former New York City mobster forced into hiding after he snitched to avoid jail time. We meet the Manzoni clan — who are now the Blakes — as they move to Normandy after blowing their cover in France.

We soon find out that they've been nothing for trouble for their poor Witness Protection manager (Tommy Lee Jones), and it doesn't take long to figure out why. Everyone — from Giovanni to his wife Maggie (the ever-lovely Michelle Pfeiffer) to their two teenage children — has anger management problems so extreme they make Happy Gilmore look like a perfect role model.

Besson, who also co-wrote the screenplay, seems much more interested in capturing the odd, quirky (and usually overly violent) moments than in creating any real suspense. While the moments don't necessarily add up to a cohesive whole, and the big finale feels forced, the moments themselves are more frequently enjoyable than not.

I especially enjoyed the chemistry between DeNiro and Pfeiffer. Both play characters with no patience, who go from calm to murderously violent at the drop of a pin but remain completely calm and loving around each other.

There's also good banter between Jones and DeNiro since Manzoni obviously never listens to anything the Witness Protection program tells him and continues to live with a mobster's mentality.

The filmmaking, like the plot, is very low key. “The Family” is as casual and simple as “The Fifth Element” is flashy and complicated. Without credits, I must admit, you'd have issues convincing me that Luc Besson directed the film.

I feel that I've been fairly positive here, probably because I liked “The Family,” but still feel the need to clarify: this isn't half the film that “Professional” or “Element” were. Those movies still stand out, and still make me smile, nearly 20 years after they were released.

I won't remember “The Family” as well in two decades because I probably won't watch it again. Still, it's got some good laughs and characters that I rather enjoyed spending a couple hours with.

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

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