'The Family': Leave the gun, take the croquembouche

Robert De Niro plays a notorious New York mobster with a bounty on his head in "The Family."

The Blakes move around a lot. Except their name really isn't Blake. And it's more accurate to say they get relocated often.

That's the premise of The Family, a film that is primarily premise.

Robert De Niro plays a notorious New York mobster, now a pariah with an obscene bounty on his head. He and his family (Michelle Pfeiffer, Glee's Dianna Agron, and John D'Leo) are settling into their latest home in France, thanks to the witness protection program.

Because they're a hotheaded clan that tends to take matters into their fists, they've been bounced around a bit. And they immediately set about upsetting the demitasse again: three days in a small village in Normandy, and half the population is in traction. The other half didn't see nuttin.

Despite the years they have spent in exile - Paris, the Riviera - the Blakes haven't learned to speak a word of French - although they can understand it exceedingly well when it suits the plot.

The Family is a film at once strange and intriguing. It can't seem to settle on a tone. The early eruptions of violence are treated as slapstick when they are most assuredly not. But the climactic showdown, which fairly cries out for a touch of humor, is played as a tense and grim action sequence.

With a hoary beard that makes him resemble actor Rade (Taken 2) Serbedzija, De Niro has his moments, but not many. Pfeiffer, never an adept comedian, seems to have picked up her Brooklyn accent from Cyndi Lauper. The only performance you can really settle in with is Tommy Lee Jones' as the family's rather hostile FBI handler.

If you don't ask too much of it, the film is diverting, thanks to the brisk assurance of director Luc Besson. But the pulp master who gave us The Fifth Element frames The Family as a traditional French farce, which requires more patience than American audiences are likely to afford it.

And it carries its distinctly European flavor right down to its final cinematique frames.

The Family is like a cheap cut of meat, cooked by a connoisseur.


The Family (** 1/2 out of 4 stars)

Directed by Luc Besson. With Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, and Dianna Agron. Distributed by Relativity Media.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact David Hiltbrand at dhiltbrand@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_TV. Read his blog at www.inquirer.com/daveondemand.