Robert De Niro fans will likely want to catch director Luc Besson's The Family, as it showcases one of the actor's finest, most alert leading performances in years. Michelle Pfeiffer fans (and I'm a huge one) will definitely want to catch this new gangster comedy, as it gives the eternally radiant performer the closest she's had to a fully fleshed-out character in over a decade, and Pfeiffer - returning to her mob-wife roots of the Scarface and Married to the Mob era - plays the role spectacularly well.
Yet there's one demographic for whom The Family should be absolutely must-see viewing: anti-Francophiles. Though it has its problems, several of them major ones, I'm betting that most of its viewers will enjoy the film. But if you're the sort who's prone to make hostile remarks about the French with little or no provocation, or have ever referenced "freedom fries" completely without irony, this is, without question, the movie for you, which makes this latest effort by Parisian filmmaker Besson not just cheeky but downright subversive.
Besson and co-screenwriter Michael Caleo, adapting Tonino Benacquista's novel, offer a relatively simple storyline that finds career sociopath Giovanni (De Niro), wife Maggie (Pfeiffer), and teenage kids Belle and Warren (Dianna Agron and the fantastic John D'Leo) under witness protection in Normandy, the collective violent impulses of the "Blake family" having recently blown their cover in Paris. But while you'd have every right to expect, and understandably dread, an ensuing, Beverly Hillbillies-esque culture-clash comedy in which uncouth Jersey thugs must assimilate into oh-so-civil surroundings, that's the exact opposite of what's in store in The Family. Instead, the movie's laughs, and its amused shock, come from the lengths the Blakes go to make their surroundings assimilate to them. To be sure, the film's arrogant, condescending French citizens get their comeuppance, and then some, when grocery-store customers make snide remarks about Americans behind Maggie's back, or when horny high-schoolers attempt a group seduction of Belle. It turns out, however, that even Normandy itself is forced to change with the Blakes' arrival. When the water in their kitchen sink runs brown, Giovanni doesn't just register a complaint with the mayor; he sets explosives at the local water-treatment plant.
The scenes of violent retribution - by both the Blakes and the East Coast goons hunting the family down - are generally so surprising here that they're riotous and rather terrifying in equal measure, and that allows The Family to be the rare comedy in which its humor is played so close to the bone that it could almost pass as a drama. De Niro, Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones (exceptional in the mostly thankless role of the Blakes' FBI handler), and others lend the film razor-sharp wit yet also provide wholly unexpected levels of empathy. And in truth, Besson's film really needs those qualities, considering the frequently abrupt tonal vacillations and the narrative inconsistency, with numerous important segue scenes apparently left on the editing-room floor. (Giovanni and Maggie both have moments that come seemingly out of nowhere in which they fret over their poor decisions, and their clan's future.)
Still, even though the movie appears to have been assembled somewhat haphazardly, The Family is great fun, filled with dynamism and drive, and with the circumstances leading to the Mafia's Normandy arrival so ridiculously, enthusiastically contrived that, for 60 solid seconds, I couldn't stop giggling. Plus, although I don't know whether the idea was Benacquista's or Besson's and Caleo's, whoever was responsible for De Niro winding up at a screening of GoodFellas - and Giovanni subsequently roped into a post-film discussion of the movie's veracity - is deserving of some kind of medal for in-joke inspiration. Perhaps the finest, funniest meta-gag of its kind since Woody Allen, in Annie Hall, said to Diane Keaton, "I'm standing here with the cast of The Godfather," the sequence finds Giovanni receiving a standing ovation at the end of his reverie. I wanted to give a standing O to the whole damned scene.
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2
So far this year, I've seen good sequels and bad sequels and sweet-Jesus-why?! sequels. But until this past weekend, I hadn't seen a 2013 sequel more purely, deliriously loony-tunes than Insidious: Chapter 2, the follow-up to director James Wan's low-budget creep-out from 2011, and a scare flick in which you truly can't tell, from scene to scene, if what you're watching is so-inept-it's-terrible, or so-terrible-it's-fabulous. With its goofy tortured-souls mythology and aggressively silly dialogue and tendency to throw dumb jokes into even the most (theoretically) tension-ridden encounters, Wan's movie is practically a self-parody, and with Patrick Wilson occasionally doing a full-out Nicholson-in-The-Shining, it's oftentimes a parody of other movies, too. Yet there's some awfully clever staging of the ghosts' appearances and cleverly integrated footage from the original Insidious, and God knows I was never bored. Every time the film threatened to lose my interest, Steve Coulter's psychic would communicate with the dead through his Boggle dice, or the wonderful Lin Shaye (whose character died in the first film) would make some whack-job pronouncement about "The Further," or some such nutty happenstance would perk things right up again. I'm pretty certain Insidious: Chapter 2 is god-awful. I'm also pretty sure I wouldn't have missed it for anything.