Review by Ken Burke The Family
Robert De Niro is an informant in the Witness Protection Program with his family in France when the mob “family” learns of his whereabouts and bloody encounters ensue.
A delightful but slim French movie that harks back to the days of 1950s Hollywood romantic extravaganzas set in the competitive arena of ... speed typing for women.
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The “slap” in my title this week refers to a related/semi-connected aspect of the 2 movies under consideration, the slap that competitive female typists back in 1959 apply to their overheated manual typewriters as they slam the carriages back into place for another line of text in their fierce desire to become champions in the French romantic comedy Populaire (Régis Roinsard)—to be explored below—and the collective “slap” applied by the Brooklyn-mob-based-marriage-and-bloodline-unit, known (privately) as the Manzonis in The Family (Luc Besson) on their former gangster “family,” with our renegades currently known under the auspices of the Witness Protection Program as the Blakes because patriarch Giovanni (Robert De Niro) has ratted on his “business associates” and now must stay on the lam with his actual family in order to escape the wrath of his former mob colleagues (especially the barely incarcerated Don Luchese [Stan Carp], who has hit squads looking all over the globe for revenge on Giovanni/renamed Fred Blake—and, just for good measure, his wife [now going by Maggie Blake (Michelle Pfeiffer)] and children, Belle [Dianna Agron; normally I’m rather clueless when a TV personality makes the jump to the big screen because I don’t see a lot of broadcast/cable series so when someone such as Bobby Cannavale makes an impact in a film such as Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen) I have no idea that he’s well-known from his work in such video series as Nurse Jackie (as Dr. Mike Cruz), Boardwalk Empire (as Gyp Rosetti), and Blue Bloods (as Charles Rosselini), although I do recognize Agron from her work on Glee as now-graduated-high-schooler Quinn Fabray—a walking advertisement for better strategies of birth control—(which may leave you wondering along with me why a Medicare-eligible guy still finds interest in this adolescent music-fest but maybe it’s because the show does a lot to fictionally repair shortcomings in my own pre-college life)] and Warren [John D’Leo]). We understand briefly in a Brooklyn flashback/dream scene why Giovanni/Fred chose to testify against his former partners-in-crime (he was being held accountable for some transgression that would have resulted in his termination so he preserved his life by providing enough evidence against Luchese—given the other extra-diegetic references made later in The Family, it’s pretty clear that this character has a reference-point as well, that of the last major counter-power-wielder to come under the retaliation of the Corleone family in The Godfather: Part III [Francis Ford Coppola, 1990], the Mafioso-businessman Don Licio Lucchesi [Enzo Robutti]—to send him to jail [for what this “punishment” is worth, given the easy access his on-the-street associates have to him and how cooperative the prison guards are with him, a funny but sad comment on what little impact incarceration has on the best-connected in our criminal counter-society), just as we assume that his cooperation had an impact on his former mob associates, but the details are sketchy here so that we can just get the Manzoni family off to France for a new attempt at identities and backstories to allow them to slip unexamined into a local Normandy-region small town.
But their own personality flaws allow disturbingly identifiable actions as a pompous plumber, a haughty shopkeeper, a self-important plant manager, and some pushy, presumptuous new classmates of the kids are all put into their place through violent reactions toward the perceived insults to this witty but homicidally-dangerous family attempting (but not too carefully) to lay low so that their FBI manager, Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), and his 2 colleagues can provide protection to their charges even as the Manzonis make it difficult because of their proclivity to answer any affront with a physical response (the only grievance that goes unavenged is that of the college-student math tutor who rebuffs Belle’s romantic assumptions after she seduces him, but his day may be coming soon once she’s over the crush; he could probably use his own protection program—especially if she wasn’t using another type of protection during their fling; however that might get us into Instructions Not Included territory [Eugenio Derbez; review in our September 12, 2013 posting—with the good news update that it continues to expand in its number of available theatres but the related bad news that its income numbers are now falling rapidly; the other one from last week, Afternoon Delight (Jill Soloway), is sadly sinking fast as well, with grosses at a mere $152,000 level] so I doubt that a sequel with this plot device is in the works). But what begins as a pleasant comedy of change-resistant-New-Yorkers refusing to offer any tolerance toward the offending locals soon enough turns into a typical gangster-movie-bloodbath as the minions of Don Luchese finally close in on the Blakes/Manzonis, requiring retaliation from not only Papa Fred/Giovanni but also all of the rest of the “Blakes”—along with Agent Stansfeld—to put down the mobster hitmen, then close the movie by moving on to another secret location with a stronger family bond (collectively killing your enemies can have that kind of impact) under the direction of exasperated-but-compliant Agent Stanfield. The Family does a lot of recycling of familiar faces in familiar roles, but the end result is carried decently by the talent of the entire cast and the marvelous, varied scenic locations of France (mostly in and around Paris, despite the stated location in the slightly western province of Normandy).
If you come to this movie expecting to see De Niro in a parody version of what we've learned about him in various well-known mob movies (Mean Streets [Martin Scorsese, 1973], The Godfather: Part II [Coppola, 1974], The Untouchables [Brian De Palma, 1987], Goodfellas [Scorsese, 1990])—as modified by his hilarious riffs on his “fierce” personas as with various comic roles in Analyze This/Analyze That (Harold Ramis, 1990, 1992) and Meet the Parents/Meet the Fockers/Little Fockers (Jay Roach, 2000, 2004; Paul Weitz, 2010)—or even Michele Pfeiffer reprising various exaggerated turns such as in Married to the Mob (Jonathan Demme, 1988), Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992), Hairspray (Adam Shankman, 2007), and Dark Shadows (Burton, 2012), you’ll likely be satisfied in the first portion but possibly made a bit uncomfortable by the extended violent shootout at the end when the troops of Don Luchese track down the "Blakes" by means of a small quote from Warren–using the Don’s pun on a modern staging of Alexander Pushkin‘s 1831 play Boris Godunov—which leads to a climatic hunt-and-retaliation scene that leaves all of the “buttons” (the trigger men sent by Luchese) dead and the "Blakes" on the way to their next contrived identity-location. In the process of the setup for this vicious culmination of what has largely been funny before (illustrating how relative “violence” can be in the arts, as prior to the concluding shootout with the NY-based assassins—in which all of the "Blake" family [including their dog] and protector Stansfield participate, leaving all of the Don’s troops dead in the process—we also have Fred breaking a plumber’s legs in retaliation for a perceived swindle, Maggie blowing up the local market in response to clearly-intended insults by the proprietor, and fierce attacks by Belle and Warren on some schoolmates who have taken or attempt to take unwanted liberties on these homicide-capable siblings, no matter how innocent or helpless they may at first appear), we see that when the action picks up considerably toward the end, all of the "Blakes" prove themselves capable of effective mayhem against Luchese’s mini-army, although the previous comic tone disappears at this point, to be replaced by well-structured tension and a few just-in-time-strikes against the attempted assassins that keep the family intact and ready for another relocation (although there’s nothing to indicate that incarcerated Don Luchese won’t find them again in order to start the retaliation process all over—but given the relatively surface attitude of most of what we see here there’s no reason to worry too much about what comes next for this self-protecting foursome, unless the involved production companies decided to spring a sequel on us in the next few years, at least if the box-office returns continue to be strong—#2 on opening weekend with a take of about $14 million in over 3,000 theaters, losing out only to the latest supernatural horror assault, Insidious: Chapter 2 [James Wan], a likely short-term winner given its high potential among the “you-can’t-scare-me … maybe ...” teenage audience).
Essentially, The Family is a reasonably-entertaining diversion in which we see some recognizable actors or character types doing familiar bits of business (with the best of this being Fred agreeing to take part in a cinema-club discussion in which he suddenly finds himself watching the De Niro character [and the others] in Goodfellas, then explaining to an enraptured audience the realities of crime life—without directly implicating himself, although handler Stansfield is ready to burst at any second), mostly focused on undermining their WPP identities so as to impose themselves on the poorly-depicted French before more aggressively imposing themselves on the assassins sent to dispatch them. It’s a pleasant enough lark, but much more violent than the trailers would lead you to believe and rather light on anything of significance (although Fred does pursue his grievance about brown water to the guilty fertilizer plant resulting in his bombed destruction of the offending processing unit which clears the liquid output for the whole community, proving that even gangsters make good environmentalists when the local bureaucracy isn’t responsive enough—he also takes out his frustrations on the plant manager in a mostly-unseen episode about being dragged by a car that makes his assault on the plumber look benevolent, so you know that beneath his usually-pleasant exterior lurks the soul of a hitman on his own terms, with little concern for those who cross him). And for my usual suggestion of a musical allusion to accompany the movie under consideration, in this case The Family, I’ll go with the instrumental version of Nina Rota’s main theme from The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=x8KHXKOji4Q with some random images from the first 2 films (or maybe you’d prefer the version with English lyrics [by Larry Kusik], “Speak Softly, Love,” as sung by Al Martino [who played Frank-Sinatra-stand-in Johnny Fontaine in Godfather 1 and 3] at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=ratoEGXA2aI, illustrated with various clips from The Godfather: Part II), allowing us to reference De Niro’s most famous gangster role but with a melancholy tone that speaks to the many atrocious acts committed by and attempted upon the Manzoni family by the even more dangerous “family” run by Don Luchese, the murderous epitome of "Thugs R Us."
In contrast, another story set in Normandy—but this one in the very late 1950s—isn’t physically violent at all, although the mental pressure on the lead character, Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François), in Populaire may make her feel as if she’s being violated by a unique aspect of a secretarial career, the need to achieve as a speed typist at the national and international competitive level. In this whimsical, loving tribute to the avalanche of Hollywood’s wide-screen, bouncy-music, Technicolor movies of the 1950s that encouraged American audiences to leave the new-seduction of their small, black-and-white TV sets in favor of returning to the public cinema theaters they had so long embraced we get a slim story that merges standard fictional structures of romance, competitive spirit, and celebration of self-confidence joined with personal determination that have been celebrated for decades in the cinema lore of entertainment-happy America and every cinematic culture that we have influenced. There’s no intention of anything deep or disturbing here, just a surface situation of a young woman desperate to move away from her village where her life is circumscribed to be a support to her widower father, Jean (Frédéric Pierrot), and become the virtually-arranged wife of a local auto mechanic. By chance she finds that her way out is sitting in the window of her dad’s general store, a manual Triumph typewriter that she determines to conquer so as to get a job as a secretary in a nearby larger city, Lisieux. After determined practice with her amateur 2-finger method she heads for her first competitive challenge, that of besting many other young women with similar desires for the “romance” of office work, in this case a group of opponents who aren’t nearly as attractive as Rose but who have a more focused understanding of a job’s requirements and a purposeful intention of providing a toned-down, non-distracting appearance (dark-framed glasses sales must have been another lucrative career at this time—except for Rose). Rose doesn’t seem ready for the “audition” pressure upon her first attempt, but she lands trial employment with insurance agent Louis Échard (Romain Duris) who’s impressed with her furious-finger-technique on the one “hand” (sorry for the lousy pun; however, it is within the spirit of this movie) but driven to distraction on the other hand by both the noise she creates pounding out his correspondence and disturbed by her general clumsiness that leads to one office disaster after the next. He soon realizes that she’s barely tolerable as a secretary but has the potential to be a winner in the regional, national—possibly even international—speed typing competitions that were about the only opportunity for conquest-focused glory available to women in this highly-misogynistic postwar era, so he puts her into a training regimen that would impress Olympic coaches, leading to regional success and the transition to a full 10-finger approach that greatly increases her chances for higher levels of achievement. In the process she also becomes attracted to him with the feeling being mutual as he calls her “pumpkin” and acknowledges that she has other attractions beyond her skilled fingers (leading to a sex scene that’s about the only thing here you wouldn’t find almost word-for-word, scene-for-scene in an actual 1950s on-again, off-again, on-again romantic comedy), but upon winning the French nationals Rose is pursued by the wealthy, success-obsessed father-and-son-team of André (Féodor Atkine) and Gilbert Japy (Nicolas Bedos) who need for the typing champ to be associated with them to further sales of their sleek Populaire typewriter. When Rose dethrones their previous image-maker they move in on her, which Louis angrily encourages (in self-depreciating fashion, believing their financial support is necessary for his protégé to get the additional training she needs to unseat the frequent [5 of the last 10 years], current World Champion, an American who’ll be on her home turf when the final competition is held in NYC).
With the promotional prowess provided by the Japy company, Rose becomes a media sensation while Louis sinks into depression, unable to put his attachment to her behind in order to rekindle a romance with his former flame (and wife of his best friend, Bob [Shaun Benson]), Marie Taylor (Bérénice Bejo, famed as the love interest in another French tribute to Hollywood’s famed past—celebrating both the coming of the sound era, a la Singin’ in the Rain [Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952], and the ingénue-eclipsing-the-headliner-theme so well-known from such classics as A Star is Born [William A. Wellman, 1937; George Cukor, 1954; Frank Pierson, 1976] and All about Eve [Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950]—Peppy Miller in The Artist [Michael Hazanavicius, 2011]). Louis is also haunted by his failure to have achieved anything notable either heroic (he fought with the French Resistance during WW II but saw his unit annihilated as they tried to run from a German assault) or sport-based (he was, as he notes, “an athlete but not a champion"), so Rose’s victory would also be a vicarious one for him, but now she’s gone—at least until Marie encourages Louis to rush to the World Championship matches, declare his love, and hopefully achieve the double goal of repairing the relationship and giving Rose the incentive she needs to overcome her fear of the ferocious Susan Hunter (Sara Haskell)—although it could all backfire, even if Rose is eager to see Louis again because his previous strategy had been to fuel Rose’s anger with some stunt which then intensified her competitive spirit. Whether true love could evoke the same response is a chance Louis decides to take, so he arrives just in time to inspire her in the final round. Of course, even with a last-minute crisis of her keys momentarily jamming, Rose wins (with help from her suddenly-supportive father—who was furious at his daughter’s decision to change her future from what he’d charted out for her—as he surprises her by sending the old Triumph machine [still sitting in his store window, as a tribute to his now-famous daughter] which she chooses to use instead of the Japy model, thereby cutting her ties with her benefactors—and supposed love-interest, Gilbert—no matter her final place in the contest), with an astonishing new record of 515 keystrokes per minute, Louis presents his idea for a typewriter ball (instead of individual keys) to the suits from the “ICM” company (a quick fictionalization of IBM’s revolutionary Selectric typewriter, introduced in 1961, not long after the 1959 setting for Rose’s “triumph”) which leads to the reunited couple’s financial security, and everyone in the theater has a great time watching this delightful trifle. Populaire attempts to do nothing beyond celebrate a type of moviemaking now a half-century removed from our current sensibilities, provide a bit of a parody of the current obsession with athletic triumphs by overpaid musclemen in high-stakes battles, and revive the romantic dream that true love will conquer any obstacle, no matter how daunting the circumstances. I don’t think that Populaire is significant cinema nor will it likely even be remembered when awards talk begins in earnest a couple of months from now, but if you just need something deliciously uplifting to boost your spirits this is a great choice—but with the sad acknowledgement that unless it really picks up steam from the scant 15 theaters that currently house it you may not even get a chance to consider it until video options are available. If you can find it, though, it might aid in the transition from the escapes of summer back to the realities of autumn, a whimsical relief from probabilities and rationalizations that loom in this returning time of shorter days, colder weather, and possibly fading hopes of accomplishing all—any?—of those long-ago attempts at New Year’s resolutions.
Give yourself a break and put it all on hold for a couple of hours with Populaire or at least a soothing musical interlude from those increasingly-receding times depicted in this pleasing movie, either the calming notes of Acker Bilk’s instrumental “Stranger on the Shore,” a huge single record hit in the early 1960s (and part of this movie’s soundtrack) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7jzx664u5DA (along with some beautiful beach photos) or something more upbeat such as Bobby Darin in full Sinatra mode doing “Mack the Knife” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Qrjtr_uFac (this was the #2 record of 1959—behind Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans, which just didn’t seem to be able to be rationalized into support of this review no matter how I tried—although you might be interested in the original version at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=aPG9GcykPIY, sung by “Mack” composer Kurt Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya [briefly referenced in Darin's version], in German probably as audiences heard it in Bertolt Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, performed in Berlin’s contrarian Epic Theatre production back in 1928). If all of that smoothness doesn’t mellow you out enough, then maybe you need the more determined-to-survive-at-all-costs-encouragement from The Family, which at least will be much easier to find in a movie house. Whatever it takes to get you through the week, I wish you the best with it and will return in a few days with a final posting for September, one that will mark another milestone for the Two Guys site, our 100th presentation of reviews.
If you’d like to know more about The Family here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qo5jJpHtI1Y (the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas , an important in-joke in The Family… with a touch of the classic “In a world …” trailer talk toward the end)
If you’d like to know more about Populaire here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1L5MKbYnhbw (if you don’t care to see an entire foreign film with subtitles or practice your high school French then just watch this trailer which shows you just about everything that you need to know about this movie)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IREh0mBWs4k (relatively short [10:31] interview with actors Déborah François and Romain Duris, along with writer/director Régis Roinsard)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.