Based on the audience in the theater, quite a few folks had turned out to see Robert De Niro as another mobbed-up character. Unlike his psychiatrist in Analyze This, the person in question is Giovanni, who has been forced into witness protection after snitching on his fellow mobsters. He, his wife “Maggie” (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter “Belle” (Diana Agron), and son “Warren” (John D’Leo) are now located in Normandy, France, as the habits which made him a good mobster not only penetrate his new life but also infiltrate the life decisions of his family members. He’s overseen by Tommy Lee Jones’ Tom, and his two subordinates (Domenick Lombardozzi and Jimmy Palumbo), but we know that no amount of protection can keep the family safe from the Mob… and themselves.
Watching Belle and Warren work their way through their new school provides some of the funniest and most disturbing moments. Warren is clever and knows exactly what the stereotypical groups need/want, and provides services that move him up the food chain a la Mean Girls; Belle seeks love as “the only way to escape this crazy family,” finding the tough lesson that sex doesn’t equal love, commitment, or meaningful relationships. Both of them seek in some regard to move past or exceed the levels reached by their parents, and unfortunately, they only make it so far.
But this is definitely a dark comic look at De Niro’s roles, and a study in the way that individuals can’t easily escape themselves. The pattern of violence is almost impossible to break, and at the same time, the audience’s response says a lot about what we expect about violence. De Niro’s Giovanni does to people what we might imagine doing to people (only more violently); what happens when the plumber sticks it to you, or the politician glad hands you while covering up globally-unacceptable conditions? We think that’s how De Niro acts, because he’s played it so often, but unfortunately here, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I won’t deny that there are parts of the film that are funny, and some that are so shocking that they make you laugh. But some of the moments that are played for laughs are… disturbing. I was flashing back to my “take” on the Mandy Moore movie Saved, as Maggie finally braves the community in the institution of the church, and gets rejected. In a moment where she takes the local parish priest at his word, she confesses her sins, and those of her family, and subsequently finds herself turned away from all church functions. It’s a truth that made the audience laugh, but which I believe has too often been the experience of people who were deemed “too dirty,” too sinner-ish for the church. And the church would be foolish to believe that wasn’t how many people saw religion, especially Christianity, in general. Personally, I don’t see anything in the Bible that says we can be too far from what God could redeem.
The Family is entertaining, and funny, but it’s also violent and profane. But in its entirety, we can see a clever look at what it means to teach our kids even when we don’t know they’re learning, how hard it is to change who we are, and what it means to long to fit in without ever knowing why.