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Dark Comedy The Family More Dark Than Comedy

Dark Comedy <i>The Family</i> More Dark Than Comedy

DVD Release Date: December 17, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: September 13, 2013
Rating: R for violence, language and brief sexuality
Genre: Comedy
Run Time: 110 min. 
Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo

Movie humor has always tended to shade into darker territory, but movie violence historically hasn't evoked laughter in favor of shock or horror.

Which films pushed audiences to laugh at on-screen carnage as a rule rather than an exception? Was it 1980s action heroes Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, always finding time for a quick quip during the mayhem that dominated their films? Was it the Coen brothers' acclaimed Fargo, which culminated with the discovery of bodies being fed into a wood chipper? Or maybe it was John Travolta accidentally shooting a man in the back seat of a car in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction that sent movie violence into laugh-at-it territory.

Some movie humor is dark, some is darker still, and then there's The Family, a pitch-black, supposed comedy from director Luc Besson (The Professional, The Fifth Element) and executive producer Martin Scorsese. Sure, it's dark, but that’s all it is: The Family fails to make any point beyond its harsh humor, reveling instead in one family's sadistic impulses. The film's appealing cast and well-executed comic timing can't mask the repulsive core of this ugly tale.

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Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro, The Big Wedding) and his family spend their days in the Witness Protection Program, but they can’t stay out of trouble. They assume new names and move to new locations frequently, staying a step ahead of a group of angry mobsters—mad that Giovanni ratted them out—who are determined to find and kill them. But most of the family's problems are self-inflicted. Even though they've left mob life, they can't seem to shake their old ways, retaliating violently against every perceived wrong done to them. 

The family has just relocated—again—to France, but the lovely setting doesn't impress the weary agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln), who has tired of watching over Giovanni, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dark Shadows), and his teenage children Warren (John D’Leo) and Belle (Dianna Agron, I Am Number Four). 

Despite Stansfield's plea that Giovanni behave himself, the ex-mobster's old habits die hard (a plumber who can't fix the tainted water in Giovanni's new home ends up in a bad way, as does the factory head who's responsible for the problem). And the tendency to overreact isn't Giovanni's problem alone—it runs in the family, as we learn when Maggie, overhearing some locals speak badly of her in a market, ensures that the establishment burns down.

The couple's children are no better. Students at their new school don't greet Warren warmly, taunting and kicking him instead. But Warren, who aspires to enter the family "business" someday, knows he'll get the last word.

"Don't worry," a bruised, beaten Warren tells his sister, Belle, in reference to the lead bully. "He'll get his." So Warren befriends some of the school's outcasts, cuts deals with students who control the school's black markets, and orchestrates a vicious form of payback.

Belle has a softer side. She's falling in love with her math instructor, and she's not shy about letting him know of her interest. Nor is she shy about sharing her feelings for him with her mother, who responds by asking, "You have condoms?" Maggie then shares with Belle a frank remembrance of being deflowered by Giovanni in a church.

Sound amusing? As unfunny and tasteless as that sequence is, it's at least nonviolent. But the movie doesn't relegate the beautiful Belle to a stock romantic subplot. She, too, has "family" instincts, savagely attacking a group of boys who foolishly think they can take advantage of her.

The family's violence is all played for laughs—the smashing of faces with tennis racquets, the dipping of a man into corrosive liquid, golf clubs to the head, dismembered fingers… the list goes on. Likewise, the film's harsh language is supposed to be humorous, with the family taking after their patriarch in liberally using the f-word to react to difficult situations.

Worst of all may be the portrayal of Maggie's misguided faith. She prays that Jesus guide her family who "deep down" aren't "bad people," and she so offends a priest during confession that he orders her to leave town ("Your family is the incarnation of evil!" the priest shouts at Maggie. "Leave this place, for the love of God!"). Again, this is all played for laughs.

The Family is a dark comedy that's certainly dark, but not very funny. It's sadism masquerading as humor, and it wastes De Niro, Pfeiffer and two appealing young actors in a one-joke story that grows old fast. It's not funny. It's not shocking. It's just depressing. Leave the family—and yourself—at home.


  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; multiple uses of the “f” word, often as a punchline; numerous uses of foul language
  • Drinking/Smoking: None
  • Sex/Nudity: Belle is attracted to a teacher; she tells her mom, who asks if she has condoms; mom says dad first had sex with her in a church; Belle says she’s saving herself for the love of her life; Belle loses her virginity to the teacher, and they’re shown having sex in a classroom (no nudity); a gangster threatens Maggie and unbuckles his pants; husband and wife kiss
  • Violence/Crime: A family is shot one by one; an axe comes down on the hand of a corpse; Warren is bullied and kicked by fellow students; Maggie causes an explosion and fire at a market; Warren says of a bullying student, “He’ll get his”; tennis racquet to the head; a dismembered finger; punching; a menacing gesture with a baseball bat; a body is seen being loaded into the back of a vehicle; choking; golf club to the face; bodies seen through an apartment door; quick shots of beatings and a man being dunked into corrosive liquid; Giovanni says, “All my sadistic urges are satisfied when I cause pain for a good reason”; a hammer brought down toward a victim; a man’s face is slammed onto a hot grill, and hot coals are placed in another man’s mouth; a politician is dragged across his desk; a bloodied man is tied to the back of a car; a girl is hit in the face with a cellphone; a woman prepares to jump to her death; guards are shot; a bloody arm sticks out from behind a desk, and blood is shown on the floor; people are shot; a knife to the chest
  • Religion/Morals/Marriage: A discussion about butter and olive oil concludes with a character asserting, “It’s in the Bible”; Maggie wears a cross around her neck and prays during the day at church; she prays to Jesus, saying of her family “deep down they’re not bad people. They just need you to guide them”; a priest encourages Maggie to confess her sins, but later says her family is the “incarnation of evil”

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Publication date: September 13, 2013