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Trying to categorize The Family into a neat, pre-packaged genre is a bit like trying to classify as a liquid or solid the result of mixing cornstarch and water (try it, it’s fun!). Director Luc Besson is clearly not out to take seriously himself, his film or cinema in general and, in a way, that is commendable. Few would argue that Besson’s Leon: The Professional isn’t a classic of modern filmmaking which has routinely helped his name stay buoyed among other more prolific auteurs. Conversely, you would have a difficult time finding someone to praise any of his other directorial or writing projects as highly. Still, Besson’s name carries weight which affords him special deference among fans and other filmmakers.

The Family exists – and, more surprisingly, works – solely because of Besson’s hubris, which is both a compliment and a criticism. Billed as a mafia/action/comedy movie, The Family is, really, none of these, defiantly refusing our insistence on categorization and acting out like a child who is told he can hear only one story before bedtime. Are there shady mob guys? Sure. Shootouts? A couple good ones. Humor? Yes, and in some unexpected places to boot. But is The Family any or all of the genres mentioned above? Not so much.

The family in question is the Manzoni clan who, until six years ago, was a part of the New York mafia. But, in order to save his own skin, Giovanni (Robert De Niro) snitched on all his buddies which resulted in him and his family joining the Witness Protection Program under the supervision of the very cranky Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones). Since then, Gio and his wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), have moved all around Europe trying to avoid being discovered by his one-time friends who have a serious price tag on his head.

Their latest incarnation is as the Blakes and their new home is the quiet French village of Normandy. As Giovanni, er, Fred settles into his new life as a “writer,” Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo) acclimate themselves to their new high school. This should be a perfect place for the family to lay low and to let their trail go cold. Unfortunately, old habits and deep-seated sociopathic instincts die hard bringing more attention on the Blake family than they would like.

Besson injects the characters and story with a very playful tone even going so far as playing the violence like slapstick comedy. Often it feels like Besson is daring his audience – and especially critics – to dislike the film for one reason or another because it never bends to any expectation. We watch him as he plays with style and conventions as a musician would improvise and improve on a cover of a classic song. While his risks do not always pay off (particularly in one daring scene that attempts to rival Steven Soderbergh’s audacious joke in Ocean’s Twelve), Besson is clearly enjoying being the conductor of this haphazard symphony.

De Niro and his cast mates have all ratcheted up the campiness to match the vague vision Besson has outlined for them. In possibly his best performance in years, De Niro is doing his best De Niro impression since Analyze This. Watching the man who changed acting make fun of his own ticks and mannerisms is pure joy for fans of his work. Pfeiffer’s nasally Brooklyn accent is almost too ridiculous to take seriously, making it the perfect choice for this role. Sharing a good deal of scenes together, De Niro and Pfeiffer prove that their longevity in their chosen is justified.

Agron is the only weak link in the cast, though this isn’t entirely her fault. Belle vacillates between violent outbursts triggered by even the smallest slight and almost Disney-princess-like naiveté that would have gotten her eaten alive long before now. Agron does her best to balance these conflicting character traits, but her talents as an actress are rather limited. D’Leo, though, more than covers for his on-screen sister, ripping through his scenes with the confidence of an actor who has seen and done it all. There are great things on the horizon for that young man.

In a way, it’s refusal to be labeled makes The Family the most respectable movie of the year. Whether it succeeds or fails is inconsequential and opinions of the film will be as varied as the people who see it. For all its faults, The Family is quite enjoyable and more entertaining than most films being released this time of year.

Grade: C+

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