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De Niro, Pfeiffer all in 'Family'

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 by PAUL WILLISTEIN in Focus

"The Family" is a generically-titled film that is anything but generic.

The mob comedy-drama stars the iconic Robert De Niro, in one of his best roles in years, and the magnificent Michelle Pfeiffer, also in one of her best performances.

"The Family" is smart entertainment on the order of "Goodfellas" (1990). In fact, there's a nod in the storyline to "Goodfellas," directed by Martin Scorsese, who produced "The Family."

There's also a sense of "Married to the Mob" (1988) "Analyze This" (1999), and "Meet the Fockers" (2004).

Call it "Meet the Mobsters."

There's smart multi-generational casting in "The Family." In addition to cinema classics De Niro and Pfeiffer, there's the casting of the up-and-coming Dianna Agron and John D'Leo as their son and daughter.

Add to the mix Tommy Lee Jones, and an excellent supporting cast playing FBI surveillance agents, hit-men and French residents, and you've got what adds up of to not only one of the year's best films, but also one of its most entertaining.

Look for a possible actor Oscar nomination for De Niro and a possible Oscar supporting actress nomination for Pfeiffer.

In "The Family," Robert De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, who is in the United States' federal Witness Protection Program, and is relocated with his wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and their two children, Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D'Leo), to Europe.

They arrive in a small town in Normandy, France, their third stop after Paris and the French Rivera because Giovanni's lack of anger management has again gotten him into trouble.

The children are enrolled in a French high school. After Warren is bullied, he teaches his classmates how they do it in Brooklyn. His sister, Belle, takes a liking to the student intern math teacher.

Meanwhile, Giovanni, now called Fred, decides to write his memoir, much to the chagrin of his FBI handler, Robert (Tommy Lee Jones), who fears it will be a tell-all.

Back at Attica State Prison in upstate New York, the mobster who Giovanni ratted out has not given up on tracking him down to the ends of the earth.

"The Family" plot builds to a delicious twist and a satisfying conclusion.

Director Luc Besson (director, "La Femme Nikita," 1990; "The Fifth Element," 1997; "Arthur and the Invisibles," 2006; and screenwriter, "Transporter," 2002, and "Taken," 2008), co-wrote the screenplay for "The Family" with Michael Caleo (writer-director, "The Last Time," 2006), based on a novel by Tonino Benacquista.

Besson has an eye for the telling detail in plot devices, dialogue and cinematography.

In plot, for example, the audience is in on De Niro's dastardly shenanigans, as well as the explosive actions of Pfeiffer, although neither knows exactly what the other is up to.

In dialogue, Pfeiffer says to De Niro, "You're sick," to which he responds, "Maybe I should see a psychiatrist."

Besson uses a lot of closeups for De Niro, Pfeiffer, Jones, Agron and D'Leo. He frames and lights his shots carefully in the well-crafted film.

It's good to see De Niro in a role in which he's in nearly every scene and is not just playing a supporting player. De Niro, in salt and pepper beard and hair, shambling around in pajamas and a robe, "Wise Guys" vocal mode, and trademark wry and whimsical facial expressions, seems comfortable and is convincing in a role that is admittedly not much of a stretch for him, given his film-acting resume. He plays it straight to terrific results.

His scenes with Pfeiffer are delightful. Pfeiffer has several scenes where she's on her own, in frumpy dress, sandals with white socks, and hair curlers. She also plays it straight, and that's what makes her portrayal all the more wacky and funny.

As the daughter, Dianna Agron (TV's "Glee") is excellent, like a young Cameron Diaz, and gives a fully-realized performance. As the son, D'Leo ("The Wrestler," 2008) is fine, like a young Ralph Macchio, and also gives a nuanced performance.

Tommy Lee Jones, as the frustrated FBI agent, also plays it straight, lending additional weight to the storyline's believability.

"The Family" is a taut thriller, a send up of mob-themed films and an overall good time at the movies. Don't miss it.

"The Family," MPAA rated R (Restricted. Children Under 17 Require Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian.) for violence, language and brief sexuality; Genre: Action, Comedy, Crime; Run Time: 1 hr., 51 min.; Distributed by Relativity Films.

Credit Readers Anonymous: Many of the scenes in "The Family" were filmed in Orne, Normandy, France.

Box Office, Sept. 20: "Prisoners" took no prisoners, opening at No. 1 with $21.4 million, dropping "Insidious Chapter 2" to No. 2, $14.5 million, $60.8 million, two weeks;

3. The Family," $7 million, $25.6 million, two weeks; 4. "Instructions Not Included," $5.7 million, $34.2 million, four weeks; 5. "Battle of the Year," $5 million, opening; 6. "We're The Millers," $4.6 million, $138.1 million, seven weeks; 7. "Lee Daniels' The Butler," $4.3 million, $106.4 million, six weeks; 8. "Riddick," $3.6 million, $37.1 million, three weeks; 9. "The Wizard of Oz," $3 million, $19.7 million (since 1939 theatrical release); 10. "Planes," $2.8 million, $86.5 million, seven weeks

Unreel, Sept. 27:

"Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," PG: That infernal machine is still churning out menacing food-animal hybrids. The animated feature sequel includes the voice talents of Bill Hader, Anna Faris, Will Forte and Neil Patrick Harris.

"Rush," R: The 1970s rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda is recreated. Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde and Natalie Dormer star. Ron Howard directs the biographical drama.

"Baggage Claim," PG-13: Taye Diggs, Jill Scott, Djimon Hounsou and Paula Patton star in the comedy about a woman on a mission to land a suitor.

"Don Jon," R: A New Jersey guy dedicated to family, friends and church develops an addiction to pornography. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars and directs in his big-screen directorial debut, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore and Tony Danza also star.

Read Paul Willistein's movie reviews at the Lehigh Valley Press web site, lehighvalleypress. com; the Times-News web site,; and hear them on "Lehigh Valley Art Salon," 6 - 6:30 p.m. Mondays, WDIY 88.1 FM, Email Paul Willistein: pwillistein@