It can be hard to say goodbye to the past, especially when we have the power to go back and revisit our favorite memories at the push of a button. The temptation is always there to try to bridge those memories to the present, a feat which director Luc Besson and executive producer Martin Scorsese attempt -- and fail -- to accomplish in The Family, a tone-deaf crime thriller that begins as a darkly comic tribute to Robert De Niro's wiseguy glory days, and slowly morphs into a sub-sitcom romp thanks to a hackneyed screenplay that pummels us into submission with enough laughable implausibilities to make even Besson's Taxi films look like high art.
Brooklyn kingpin Giovanni Manzoni (De Niro) had it all until the day he became a snitch. Now, no matter how many times Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) relocates him and his family, danger is never far behind. When they blow their cover once again, Giovanni, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and their two kids Warren (John D'Leo) and Belle (Dianna Agron) are shipped off to a sleepy village in France. It seems like the perfect place to escape the long arm of the lawless, until the criminally inclined family resort to their treacherous old ways and once again become a blip on the syndicate radar. The thugs soon close in, and they mean business. As the Manzonis use their unique set of skills to survive the relentless storm of bullets, bombs, and rockets, the citizens of this peaceful French village suddenly find themselves in the middle of an all-out Mafia war zone.
The first time we meet the Manzonis, they're arriving at their provincial home in Normandy, France, after an exhausting 11-hour car trip. Everyone is eager to settle in after the long ride, but before Giovanni (now "Fred") can relax, he has to bury the corpse he has stashed in the trunk of the car. Over the course of the next 24 hours, Maggie has blown up a grocery store, Warren has concocted a plan to hustle the bullies who gave him a beating on his first day of school, and virginal Belle has fallen head over heels for an awkwardly handsome math substitute who's agreed to become her personal tutor. It's a fairly lighthearted setup for the obvious chaos to follow, yet co-screenwriters Besson and Michael Caleo (who previously penned an episode each of The Sopranos and Rescue Me) just never manage to hit that sweet spot between comedy and drama, much less give us a reason to care about this unrepentant family of criminals. While the rage-fantasy flashes experienced by bored patriarch Fred occasionally yield impulsive laughs, the moments when his anger gets the best of him only serve as a reminder of the caged-up monster within -- one who doesn't even appear to care if mob hit men put a bullet between his childrens' eyes when pondering his own uncertain future.
Of course, we've seen De Niro play these kinds of characters in the past, and occasionally even sympathized with his twisted sense of honor. But this isn't Goodfellas or Casino, and although the character of Fred is a more interesting commentary on his shady cinematic past than some of his other recent screen roles, not even a heartfelt speech to his daughter about his failures as a father manages to humanize him in a way that justifies his reckless, psychotic behavior. Likewise, Pfeiffer, D'Leo, and Agron don't fare much better as the other members of his family, breathing precious little personality into characters that were reactionary ciphers in the first place.
Perhaps even these faults would have been forgivable had Besson and Caleo put some actual effort into their screenplay, but the longer the story plays out, the lazier they seem to get with their plot mechanisms, until we're supposed to believe that a small school newspaper from a provincial French town just happens to fall into the hands of the incarcerated crime boss who's determined to see the entire Manzoni family dead. Later, as a small army of heavily armed mob goons arrive to do their dirty work, Besson displays none of the stylistic flair that we've glimpsed in his best work. By that point, one gets the impression that Besson simply wants to wrap things up as quickly as possible; but in a way that's OK, because that's just about the time most of us will be checking our watches anyway.