How many times has Robert DeNiro played a gangster?
We could refine that question. How many times has De Niro played a mafioso? As opposed to a Jewish gangster (“Once Upon a Time in America,” 1984), a half-Italian wiseguy (“Goodfellas,” 1990) or Al Capone (“The Untouchables,” 1987).
(Capone was Neapolitan, the mafia is a Sicilian thing.)
De Niro has played young Vito Corleone (“The Godfather Part II, 1974), Lorenzo Anello (“A Bronx Tale,” 1993) and Paul Vitti (“Analyze This,” 1999, “Analyze That,” 2002). The guy either got typecast early or there’s something about him that looks like a mafioso, although De Niro is in fact only part Italian, along with Irish, German, French and Dutch ancestry.
So how often has De Niro played a mafioso? Maybe once too many times.
“The Family” is a French movie directed by Luc Besson. Though made in English with a largely American cast, it has a certain je ne sais quois, a French sort of feel to it. I kind of liked it, but I kind of didn’t feel good about liking it.
De Niro plays mafioso Giovanni Manzoni, a.k.a. Fred Blake because he’s in the witness protection program with his family: wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), son Warren (John D’Leo) and dog Malavita (title of the novel by Tonino Benacquista it’s based on).
As the film opens the family is relocating from the French Riviera to Normandy. It appears they have a problem being inconspicuous. This is brought home when De Niro unloads a body from the trunk and inters it in the garden of their new house.
Immediately and in spite of warnings by their FBI handler Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), Frank and Maggie start to use muscle on locals who disrespect them and their children have organized their own mini-mafia at school.
Frank puts a plumber in the hospital for trying to shake him down. Maggie burns down a grocery store after the proprietor and customers are really nasty and offensive to her. Belle beats a would-be high school rapist to a pulp. Warren does the same to the leader of the gang that beat him up the first day of school.
All of this falls in the category of black comedy wish fulfillment fantasy. I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if you really could beat those high school bullies who made your life miserable to a pulp? And wouldn’t it be great if you could do it not just with brute force but with masterful planning that made them realize they’d messed with the wrong people?
Ever been cheated by a crooked businessman and been told the cost of the lawsuit would be greater than the sum you recovered? Ever have meaningful fantasies involving baseball bats?
Of course you have, everybody has.
That’s part of the appeal of “The Family,” the dream of obnoxious people getting their comeuppance.
Another part of the appeal is, the Manzoni/Blake family is loving and close. Fred loves Maggie, they both love their children, the family atmosphere is warm and affectionate.
Belle however, wants out of her life on the run and is saving herself for true love. So you know she’s bound for heartbreak.
Maggie is friends with the two FBI guys on stakeout across the street and brings them delicious Italian food. They in turn are indignant about the cad who breaks Belle’s heart.
Stansfield and Fred have a complex relationship. Fred calls Stansfield, “the guy who made my life living hell for six years.”
Nonetheless there’s an element of respect there.
Fred himself is discovering his voice as a writer, which would make any writer envious of the material he has to work with.
There are some very clever allusions to previous gangster films. Watch for the way Belle loses her innocence, the baseball bat and Fred being invited to discourse on “Goodfellas” at a meeting of the local film society.
But… the essence of black comedy is comeuppance. What happens to the victims is supposed to be at least a little deserved. The motives of the avenger at least a little sympathetic.
Black comedy ceases to be funny the moment an innocent is killed.
“Prizzi’s Honor” (1985) was another black comedy mafia film that was pretty amusing, until an innocent woman walks in on a hit and is shot dead by Kathleen Turner.
When the mob catches up with the Blake/Manzoni family due to a chain of incredible coincidences, there is a holocaust of innocents.
The family prevails and all is well – except for the carnage left behind.
There could be a subtle point in there Besson is making. Or it could just be the writer wrote himself into a corner he couldn’t write himself out of.
Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.