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Non-Review Review: The Family

I can’t tell you what The Family is. Not because of omerta or anything as cliché as that, but because it seems like The Family itself doesn’t know. I can describe what happens in the film, taking you through the events as they unfold on screen. I can describe the set-up. I can talk about its obvious influences. But I can’t tell you what exactly Luc Besson’s latest film actually is, because it seems like Besson himself can’t make up his mind.

Is it an action film with a quirky and unconventional set-up? Is it a gangster comedy about a former crook trying to go straight? Is it a fish-out-of-water comedy of manners about Americans arriving in northern France? Is it a pitch black comedy about a self-justifying sociopath attempting to carve out his own place in the world? Is it a high-stakes thriller about a family putting their lives on the line? Is it a weird coming-of-age drama? The Family is all of these things at various points, but it never commits to any of them.

Instead, it uses these elements to just keep circling until the running time is over.

Family values...

Family values…

That’s not to say that The Family is a complete misfire. A few small strands of plot work surprisingly well. I quite like the idea of a film about a psychotic mobster trying to fix the family plumbing in order to affirm his masculinity. It’s like an even more absurdist version of The Sopranos, with a surreal comedic bent. I quite like the idea of a vicious gangster trying to cash in on the popular image of gangsters as larger-than-life figures, while the film chips away at his own ego and self-image.

However, the problem with these elements is that they are mixed in with various elements that simply don’t work. We never care about the family’s eldest daughter to be invested in her whirlwind romance with a doe-eyed mathematics teacher. While the notion of a fourteen-year-old mob kid attending school under witness protection has some measure of merit, the execution is so decidedly cutesy that it seems at odds with the rest of the film. Michelle Pfieffer is pretty fantastic as a hardened mob princess, but her plot line abruptly ends in the most trite manner possible, with no real pay-off.

Tommy Lee Jones gives the move two thumbs up...

Tommy Lee Jones gives the move two thumbs up…

There are lots of little strands in The Family, but they all seem to be pulling the film different directions. Shifts in tone are jarring rather than effective, as if the cast members have each wandered into their own contrasting subgenre. It’s not a bad idea, in principle. “Family adapts to radical change in surroundings” is a pretty good story hook, but The Family suffers because it’s never really about the family adapting. The plot threads never really come together, and the father’s subplot is the only strand with any real pay-off to it.

It hurts that The Family can’t even seem to settle on a tone. Most of the film has a heightened reality to it, to the point where a member of the family can blow up a local shop without any consequences, or the lives of the children in school exist completely independent of the family unit as a whole. At one point, a bunch of mobsters act like an invading army, as if they wandered out of a bad Jean-Claude Van Damme film.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

Then again, The Family is set in a version of northern France that looks like it came from some collective nightmare. The people are reduced to crass stereotypes – over-sophisticated and over-cultured snobs who enjoy nothing more than condescending to Americans. They joke about how Americans are fat and stupid and eat burgers. The eponymous immigrants might be violent sociopaths, but at least they aren’t portrayed as consistently rude and snooty.

When confronted about a health issue, the mayor of the small town none-too-subtly suggests that the foreigners need to learn to blend in and stop whining. The local professionals are somewhat casual about keeping appointments. “As we say around here,” a plumber boasts, finally showing up forty minutes late for his third appointment, “better later than never.” Crazy Europeans! You’d expect The Family to have a similar amount of fun with American stereotypes.

Bat your life on it...

Bat your life on it…

Instead, the eponymous are actually considerate hosts. When they first arrive, they arrange a nice large get-to-know-you barbecue with all the locals, playing up the Americanisms. When the patriarch is invited to speak at the local film club, he is careful and considerate enough to do his research beforehand. The Family is a culture shock comedy that has stacked the deck decidedly in favour of the American characters.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it is at odds with the attempts to ground some of the emotional character arcs, particularly of the two female characters. It’s hard to be too concerned with what a priest thinks of the family’s matriarch when her husband is acting like a one-man wrecking crew. A subplot involving the daughter’s first love never has a chance to resonate because we’re waiting for some decidedly stylised or absurd twist that never happens.

Against type(writer)...

Against type(writer)…

Instead, the final act just sweeps into town to wrap everything up in a hail of gunfire and explosions. There’s even a rather gratuitous, and tone-deaf, threat of sexual violence against a female character to raise the stakes – a mistake that Riddick made quite recently as well. The action sequences feel like something of an after-thought, rather than Besson’s usual carefully-organised chaos.

There are moments when The Family comes close to working. In particular, there’s a nice recurring gag about the patriarch’s ability to express an incredibly number of sentiments in a single syllable, which pays off quite well throughout. Of the various tones that the film struggles with, Besson manages “cartoony” quite well, with the film suffering whenever the movie slips focus away from its more decidedly absurd elements.

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2 Responses

  1. Agreed. Made some of the same point in my own review, actually.

    I think this night have worked if it had decided that it was, at it’s core, a black comedy. It just never decides it’s anything, and that means it struggles.

  2. Still have no clue whether this was supposed to be a comedy, a drama, or an action-thriller. Maybe a mixture of all three, but not a very well-done mixture to say the least. Nice review Darren.

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