Review: ‘The Family’ is too much

“The Family” is a reprehensible film – and the worst thing about it is that for a while, it actually works.

By “works,” I mean it succeeds in getting us to cheer on characters who are little more than homicidal, narcissistic thugs.

They’re the Manzonis (a.k.a, the Blakes), whose patriarch (Robert De Niro) was a big player in American organized crime – until he ratted on his cronies, entered witness protection and moved to France with his wife and two kids.

Rather than keep a low profile in their new digs, however, all four wreak havoc wherever they go.

Mom (Michelle Pfeiffer) blows up a grocery story because the cashier and customers insulted her; son swiftly becomes a small-turf mob-boss in school; and slightly older sis, after beating an obnoxious fellow-student half to death, brazenly throws herself at a handsome teacher, then can’t figure out why he won’t elope with her to Paris.

Dad, meanwhile, administers two beatings of astonishing brutality, one of which – accomplished with a sledgehammer after a baseball bat is splintered in the process – leaves its victim with a leg broken in twelve places.

Now, writer-director Luc Besson is a man who can certainly get you to care about his characters – as we saw in “Taken,” “The Professional” and “The Fifth Element.” Here, he gets considerable help from his performers; I suspect the only reason this film might pass for fun is that it’s riding on their warmth and familiarity:

The veteran De Niro, calling on the astonishing cache of good will he’s amassed with viewers despite many unsavory roles; Pfeiffer, still melting hearts at 55; Dianna Agron (“Glee”), youthfully vixenish even though she’s 10 years too old for this part; and lesser-known but engaging John D’Leo as the apple that falls not far from De Niro’s tree.

Thanks to these actors – along with solid editing, photography and direction – the climactic shootout feels tense, exciting and bracingly authentic, in spite of its glaring improbabilities. I was almost ready to curse myself for caring so much about this gang of bums.

Up until then, I kept wondering if Besson was headed toward some instructive retribution for all the violence and bloodshed; would the Blakes discover that their barbaric life of crime eventually came with a price tag?

The answer is a resounding No.

The overall tone of “The Family” overall tone its upbeat music, its happy ending, its carefree voiceover by De Niro – leaves little doubt that Besson actually likes these people, and wants us to like them too. At times I suspect he thought all this was rather comical.

Granted, none of the victims are especially likable; in particular, the fellow students did seem to be asking for it.

But the assaults are neither fun nor funny – and if by chance some folks are amused, we might want to ask how our culture reached a point where this sort of amoral savagery is regarded as escapist entertainment.