Obviously Robert De Niro was abducted by aliens, and the fellow we’ve watched sleepwalk through nearly 20 years of shlock is a pod person. A pod person with a terrible agent and no earthly idea how to distinguish between trash and the types of roles the Oscar winner routinely transformed into classics until the mid-’90s.
Remember? As recently as 1993, De Niro turned out a pair of timeless portraits in A Bronx Tale and This Boy’s Life. In 1995, he did it with Heat and Casino. Notice anything different about his output from 2000 — Meet the Parents and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle? The actor may not have phoned home in the years since his eerie career transmogrification, but he sure has phoned it in.
For example, take this year’s double helping of dreck: The Big Wedding, a romantic comedy that racked up a 7 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes; and perhaps De Niro’s dumbest 110 minutes of movie work to date: the mob-farce train wreck The Family.
The latest from overcaffeinated French writer-producer-cinematographer-editor-soundtrack-composer-actor-and-occasional-director Luc Besson (Angel-A), this exercise in ennui offers the story of the Manzonis. They’re uprooted from Brooklyn and placed in the witness protection program when patriarch Giovanni (De Niro) snitches on Mafia associates for reasons never shared with the viewer.
As the film opens, the “Blakes” have just landed in Normandy after antisocial antics never shared with the viewer forced them to flee the French Riviera. Gio is accompanied by wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer in full-on Married to the Mob mode) and the couple’s two teens, played by John D’Leo and Dianna Agron.
The movie’s one joke is repeated mercilessly: Besson juxtaposes humdrum daily events with sudden bursts of ultraviolence. On her first trip into town, for example, Maggie overhears the grocers muttering about Americans in French, a language she doesn’t understand, and responds by torching the place anyway. How’d she know what was being said? We’re simply not supposed to care. Logic’s a language this picture doesn’t understand.
How entertaining it is when the son recruits a gang to brutalize a fellow student, and the daughter reacts to a classmate’s advances by going all Serena Williams on his face with a racquet. Try not to fall out of your seat laughing when Dad finds a plumber’s quote too high and so breaks his leg with a bat. Those zany Manzonis!
I don’t mean to suggest the film is one blackly comic thing after another. Most of the time, not much of anything happens. The pace is plodding, the cast appears half asleep, and the overlong running time results from a dreary combination of small talk and pointlessly stretched-out material.
Like the scenes devoted to a subplot about Gio writing his memoirs. Right. He’s got a $20 million bounty on his head and button men on his tail, so, when he discovers a vintage typewriter, publishing his life story seems like the obvious plan. The Family has more filler than all the cream pastries in Paris.
Not to mention a final act that ranks with the cinema’s most lunkheaded. The local film society invites Gio to lecture, for reasons never shared with the viewer. The picture it decides to screen? Goodfellas.
De Niro’s character reacts to the announcement with concern and discomfort, as though his cover’s about to be blown — but why? He’s not De Niro, and he’s not Jimmy Conway, the gangster the actor played in that film. He’s Giovanni Manzoni, a gangster in a film by Luc Besson. It’s a meta moment with zero meaning, cleverness or entertainment value.
You know, like pretty much every other moment in this moronic, ill-conceived mess.