By Alan Mattli
There is a scene in Malavita (also known under its English-language title The Family) which in its own crude way serves as a pars pro toto summation of Luc Besson’s latest: set against a cheery score evoking the sound stage worlds of Busby Berkeley, narrator and former New York mobster Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) lists the top ten reasons why he ist not a fundamentally bad person. Unlike the similar endeavours of, say, John Cusack in High Fidelity, the ranking is neither coherent nor inherently funny; indeed, many of the clips meant to support the bullet points seem rather far-fetched. Its chirpy tone is undercut by instances of grisly mafia violence. And yet, enhanced by impeccable staging and De Niro’s seasoned narration, the sequence, despite wasting a promising setup, never actually feels like a waste, at least not a particularly irritating one.
The same can be said for Malavita as a whole, as it casually ignores the potential of its premise and instead opts to be a scattered black comedy with a devil-may-care attitude towards the genre’s conventions concerning jokes (there are few) and depiction of violence (frequent and graphic). Still, it ultimately falls into the category of films we might term, to quote Andrew Sarris, “lightly likable; uneven but with the saving grace of unpretentiousness”.
After his blandly hagiographic treatment of Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (The Lady), Besson – who, apart from Léon (1994) and perhaps Nikita (1990), has never actually directed a film that did not in some way feel like a waste of opportunity – returns to familiar ground by adapting Tonino Benacquista’s 2004 novel Malavita. Having snitched on a Brooklyn mafia kingpin, Giovanni Manzoni, along with his family, enters the witness protection programme, overseen by FBI agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones). But since secrecy is not Giovanni’s strong suit, the Manzonis are subject to numerous relocations; the latest of which forcing them to settle in rural Normandy.
It’s a classic fish-out-of-water story with a wickedly Bessonian twist: the misigivings Giovanni, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and their teenage offspring (Dianna Agron, John D’Leo) have about their French bourgeois surroundings do not result in awkward scenes of clashing cultures but in physical confrontations. While the Manzoni children wreak havoc at the local lycée – Warren (D’Leo) subversively recruits an army to exact revenge on a group of bullies, while Belle (Agron) beats a brash suitor to a bloody pulp with a tennis racket –, Maggie sets fire to a supermarket and De Niro/Giovanni, irked by a cheeky plumber, reenacts his/Al Capone’s baseball bat routine from The Untouchables.
It is a question of taste whether one can find any value in those scenes (which culminate in a lengthy shootout with mafia bounty hunters), but even though they are jarringly at odds with the overall tone of the film, there is a refreshing, intriguing quality to them in that they, much like the characters, playfully breach the movie’s harmonious surface. Moreover, the fact that they do at times generate uneasy laughter hints at Besson’s talents as a director of provocation.
However, most of the laughs belong to the banter between characters, chiefly Giovanni’s conversations with Tommy Lee Jones’ surly Agent Stansfield. Both implicitly draw on previous characters they’ve played – Jones on The Fugitive‘s Marshal Samuel Gerard, De Niro on his stock mafioso figure, which is modeled on Jimmy Conway from Goodfellas (which serves as a plot point) – and seem to be genuinely content doing so. Michelle Pfeiffer, too, thanks to a feisty delivery, scores several decent moments of character comedy, while John D’Leo and particularly Dianna Agron are burdened with unconvincing subplots that hamstring parts of the second act and stretch out the runtime to an unnecessary 110 minutes. Still, with barely a dull moment in it, Malavita qualifies as a messily unfocused but nonetheless diverting romp.
★★★½ (out of six)
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.