The Reel: “Family” Matters: De Niro, Pfeiffer lead offbeat mob comedy

Ben Conniff

Growing up, I always considered my family “dysfunctional.”

Mom’s late picking me up from basketball practice, my sister needs someone to take her to violin lessons on Saturday and no one wants to clean up the kitchen after dinner.

The Conniffs have never been the most effective communicators, but I’ll take that over crime any day.

In director Luc Besson’s mafia-comedy “The Family,” the Manzonis give “dysfunctional” a whole new meaning.

After ratting out his entire crew, Brooklyn mafia boss Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) and his family are relocated to Normandy, France under the Witness Protection Program.

Assimilating into the sleepy town proves difficult as new frustrations lead to the emergence of old habits.

When a plumber comes to evaluate the house’s ancient pipes, Gio beats him senseless for attempting to rip him off.

When Gio’s wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) is rudely informed the grocery store doesn’t sell peanut butter, she burns the place down.

When some creeps make an unwelcome pass at 17-year-old Belle (Dianna Agron), she invokes her wrath with a tennis racket.

When some bullies give 14-year-old Warren (John D’Leo) a black eye, he establishes a mini crime syndicate at school.

Some viewers may find these violent scenes to cause jarring shifts in tone. But it’s these moments of unsuspected violence that expose a degree of depth for each character and also drive the film’s dark humor.

“The Family” is akin to another violent, dark comedy: Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges.”

There are fine character developments and loads of zippy jokes from start to finish, but the comedy never overshadows the violence nor does the violence get in the way of the laughs.

Though “The Family” is disappointingly bereft of the belly laughs that made “In Bruges” one of my all-time favorite movies, you can’t help but chuckle at the very least whenever Gio goes overboard.

The best self-referential joke of recent memory involves his turn as a guest speaker at a local film society’s screening of a certain American classic.

I won’t spoil the punch-line for you. You just have to see it.

It isn’t until the last twenty minutes, when the “goombas” finally catch up to the Manzonis, that the film sheds its playful exterior in favor of a gruesome, high-stakes showdown.

By losing its lightheartedness altogether, “The Family” isn’t as hard-hitting or memorable as it should be.

That being said, the film still boasts stellar performances from a nuanced De Niro and an ageless Pfeiffer, whose turn as Maggie feels like a welcome parody of her roles in “Scarface” and “Married to the Mob.”

Agron and D’Leo also fare well in addition to a strong turn from Tommy Lee Jones as the Manzoni’s F.B.I. handler. Watching him trade gruff banter with De Niro is a treat.

It’s imperfect, but whose “family” isn’t?