American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Life is tough in the Witness Protection Program. Life is pretty cushy, too, especially if you're the Manzoni family in Luc Besson's "The Family": you get to live in a quaint house in a tiny village in Normandy, you eat well, you have FBI guys stationed across the street 24/7, and you have a personal handler who makes sure that you and your loved ones are safe. The point of being in Normandy for the Manzonis is to somehow "pass" as regular Americans on holiday or sabbatical, and the Manzonis fail to manage this from the start, mainly because they are all raging maniacs.
"The Family" is a pretty uneven film, lurching from comedy to violence to sentiment, but it's best when it sticks in the realm of flat-out farce. The pleasure comes in watching the actors (Michelle Pfeiffer, in particular) submitting wholeheartedly to ridiculous situations. The film has a mix of influences and genres, obviously, and Besson plays with these and references them openly, but the farcical elements rest uneasily beside the violence, leaving the unmistakeable feeling that this is a film slightly at war with itself.
When dealing with the family's adjustment (or lack thereof) to small-town French life, it is on sure (and often hilarious) footing. Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) snitched on his Mafia friends back in the States, and because of that there is now a $20 million price on his head. In exchange for his testimony, he and his family (wife and two teenage kids, Belle and Warren) are placed in the Witness Protection Program, under the control of FBI agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones). Maggie Manzoni (Pfeiffer) is already sick of the life in hiding, and has a tiny habit of blowing stuff up when she gets upset. Of course placing a well-known Mob boss into a tiny village in France doesn't seem like the best strategy for the FBI, because the witness will stick out even more there, but you really can't ask those questions when you watch "The Family." The answers will not hold up under interrogation.
The film opens with the family (Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, and John D’Leo) driving through the French countryside to yet another hideout since their cover was blown in the Riviera. The two kids loll bored in the back seat, Giovanni tries to tell everyone the new place will be fine, everything will be okay, the dog gets blamed for the bad smell in the car (when actually it is the stink of a dead corpse in the trunk, hidden there by Giovanni on his way out of Nice). This opening scene contains everything that is good and pleasurable about the film: watching Pfeiffer and De Niro act with one another, the weird juxtaposition of violence and everyday family matters, the family's anxiety at being in France when they'd rather be in Brooklyn. You are lulled into a false sense that you understand what is going on here—that the father, Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) is the "wise guy," and his family is just along for the ride. But the next couple of scenes explode that sense of safety (literally) as you realize that all of them, all four of them, are out of their minds.