Film Review: The Family

American crime family has trouble adjusting to a witness protection program in France.

Despite a dream cast, The Family is an only intermittently funny gangster comedy. Curiosity seekers may help box-office returns, but the Relativity release will find its largest audience after its theatrical run.

Based on the novel Malavita (published in the U.S. as Badfellas), the premise sends a mob family to France as part of an ill-conceived witness protection program. Father Fred Blake (Robert De Niro) had to go underground when he ratted out his associates, who have several hit men out looking for him. Fred answers to Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a weary Federal agent whose men keep the family under constant surveillance.

While Fred laboriously types out his memoirs, his children Belle ("Glee" star Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D'Leo) try to adapt to a French high school where both students and faculty are amazingly fluent in English. Belle easily handles the school's pack of would-be date rapists before seducing a math teacher. Warren takes over the school's black market in test results and recreational drugs. Fred's wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) has to keep up appearances when her husband and children go off script, but even she isn't above a little arson when mistreated by a village grocer.

With a strong premise and pros like De Niro, Pfeiffer and Jones in the cast, The Family could have been a comedy classic. But it moves at too leisurely a pace, with time for digressions that include Maggie's dalliance with a nearby priest and Fred appearing at a film society to discuss Goodfellas.

More problematic are the plot lines involving the Blake children. The foul-mouthed Warren is largely a bore, while Belle's escapades slide into tastelessness. Devoting so much screen time to them seriously weakens the movie.

The script by director Luc Besson and "Sopranos" scribe Michael Caleo does set up some great opportunities for three leads, who are working together for the first time. De Niro's Fred is a natural outgrowth of his breakthrough roles for one of the movie's executive producers, Martin Scorsese. His performance here has far more nuance and humor than his turns in the Analyze This and Fockers series. The actor allows his long-dormant vicious streak to emerge, adding real bite to his confrontations with locals.

Pfeiffer has perfected a very convincing aura of icy menace, and shows off an ingratiating loose side in a funny marijuana scene. She even resurrects her Married to the Mob hairstyle in flashbacks. And Jones is dead on as a by-the-book Fed, a clever extension of his Fugitive role.

The Family earns its R rating with dialogue that is relentlessly profane and some pointlessly graphic violence. The tonal shifts can be jarring, especially once assassins start targeting innocent bystanders. It's difficult to reconcile the jokes with the story's beatings and explosions, no matter how deserving the French victims are.

Still, this is the most animated and interesting De Niro has been on screen in a while. If you're a fan, The Family might be worth it just to hear him explain his background to an inquisitive neighbor with a surly, "We move around a lot."