The Family – a movie review

The Family: A Movie Review


Howard Adelman

I will discuss this week’s Torah portion tomorrow if everything goes according to plan, though this has not been the usual pattern lately. The Torah portion is about tzaraat, an affliction and condition about which we should feel most ashamed and demanding the most extreme measure in response, shaming and exclusion from society. I have written about the problematic nature of shaming before, trying people in the court of public opinion, and the disastrous consequences of such practices. Exclusion is the ultimate form of shaming. The Inuit do it and send those afflicted out into the ice cold winter of the Arctic to survive on their own. The ancient Israelites practiced shaming, even as the religion of the Hebrews transformed shaming and suborned it to a guilt culture under the rule of law.

The Family is a film about a family, a whole family, a husband, a wife, a fourteen-year-old son and a beautiful seventeen-year-old daughter, each and every one afflicted with tzaraat in the ultimate cinematic representation of the condition. But not as a tragedy; as a comedy. And an absolutely hilarious one at that. To be fair, after glimpsing some reviews after I saw the movie on Netflix last evening, I belong to a small minority who clearly love and appreciate the film. I did not choose to watch the movie, but I assented to do so, knowing only that it was a gangster or mafia movie. I did not even know it was a comedy.

The film has top actors, Robert De Niro as Giovanni Manzini (Fred Blake), a relatively minor crime boss sent into exile in Normandy, France, under a witness protection program of the FBI because he ratted out his larger mafia family, Michelle Pfeiffer as Maggie Blake, the wife of Manzini with the new last name assigned to the family by the FBI, but who, unlike her husband, is not forced to take on a new first name, Diana Agron as the beautiful seventeen-year old daughter, Belle, John D’Leo as Warren, the fourteen-year-old precocious son, though a progeny in the perverse way of the mob, and, to round up the all-star cast, Tommy Lee Jones plays the straight and long-suffering FBI agent charged with administering the protection of the family. The acting is faultlessly brilliant, especially by Michele Pfeiffer as most critics who did not really care for the film agreed.

The film was somehow billed as a thriller/action movie when there are virtually no thrills and the action, including all the cold-blooded killing – and the movie overflows with blood – is inverted into comedy much as in the treatment of the corpse in My Weekend With Bernie. This is how the film is depicted in the promotional copy as about a family which “can’t help but resort to doing things the ‘family’ way. However, their dependence on such old habits places everyone in danger from vengeful mobsters.” But the stars in the movie are never in danger. We never fear for their safety. It is a comedy after all and all of them will survive the murder and mayhem. You have to be totally out-of-it to have any fears that the “heroes” of the movie will come to wrack and ruin.

Further, to describe the family as “afflicted with old habits” is simply a totally inadequate understatement when each of the members, charming as each one is in his or her own way, carries the ultimate flaw of being total psycho- and socio-paths, carrying the curse of tzaraat and totally deserving of exclusion from normal society. That depiction is simply gross distortion or an inside joke in itself that the following reviewers took seriously in repeating that motif. Below are some examples of “reviews”:

Nick De Semlyen in Empire

The Family is a comedy. This is made evident by the gratingly jolly music that plays over every scene, if not by the film’s clunky contrivances and desperate search for a good punchline. Luc Besson’s big idea is to plonk a violent, sweary Mafia family into the rarified environs of the French countryside, but there’s a serious lack of imagination, from the first-base casting (Robert De Niro as the don, Michelle Pfeiffer as the woman married to the Mob, Tommy Lee Jones as the dogged FBI agent, a bloke from The Wire as a bloke monitoring a wire) to a meta scene involving GoodFellas that gives meta a bad name.

Sandy Schaefer in Screen Rant

The Family revolves around the Manzonis, a notorious Mafia family that’s been hiding out in and around France ever since the patriarch Giovanni (Robert De Niro) ratted out his fellow mobsters to the Feds. Giovanni and his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D’Leo) have been a constant thorn in the side of Witness Protection Program agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) for the past ten years, since their habitual psychotic behavior is constantly blowing the U.S. government’s covert operation. Giovanni, now passing himself off as American Fred Blake, relocates with his family to the sleepy town of Normandy, where at first it seems as though the (former?) criminals will be able to settle down quietly and keep a low profile. However, as the saying goes, old habits die hard and soon enough all of the Manzonis start getting themselves into trouble – the kind that, sooner or later, is bound to earn unwanted attention from the hitmen looking to collect the bounty on Giovanni’s head.

Paul Asay in Plugged In

Everyone’s got a story. We’re all central characters in our own narratives filled with drama, action, passion and comedy. Some folks even write their stories down, believing that they might be of interest to others. That’s great. Nothing wrong with that at all—unless you’re in the Witness Protection Program. Then it’s probably not such a hot idea. Giovanni Manzoni and his family have been in the program for years now. Ever since Giovanni ratted on his other family (that’d be the Mafia), this ex-wiseguy’s been running and hiding from his former associates with the help of FBI agent Robert Stansfield, who does his best to keep Giovanni and his family alive. It’s not easy. The family business is in the Manzoni blood, and they’re never in a place very long before some (ahem) unfortunate tendencies resurface. When suspicions and neighborhood body counts start to rise, Robert and his operatives swoop in and move the Manzonis somewhere safer.

Just as Fred tried to be a good dad, The Family may have tried, at one point, to be a good movie. Maybe this was supposed to be a story about a family coming closer together in the midst of struggle. Maybe we were supposed to see the children grow a little more mature. Maybe we were supposed to notice Fred change deep down, to see him realize that his real family is so much more valuable than the Mafia he used to call his family. Maybe one of these characters, somehow, somewhere, was supposed to have changed and grown, even just a little.

And every once in a while, we do glimpse hints that some of these themes might’ve been in the movie … once. But if they were ever there, somewhere along the line they were dropped like a pair of concrete galoshes, leaving the movie to flounder and sink, both in terms of its story and its morality. In the end, there’s no purpose to much of anything here, really. No reason for the bodies or blood or brutality or 40 f-words. It’s true that everyone has a story—but this isn’t much of a story at all. And what there is of it doesn’t deserve to be told.

Even Sheila O’Malley, who, under the Roger Ebert label, offers a modestly favourable review, though far from a rave, falls into the habit of accepting the publicity, as handed to reviewers, that the central theme is about the deeply held habits of a family that just happen to be a crime family.

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 (sic!) feeling that this is a film slightly at war with itself.

I really do not get it. How do such obtuse film commentators, whose reviews mostly consist of giving away the details of the narrative, get to be elevated to the status of critics when they have no idea of what a simple, straight-forward comedy is really all about. The Family is a hilarious first class and almost perfect comedy. Let’s start with the family.

The commentators are correct in at least this much. The mafia is “a family.” The core of this film is about a typical modern family, two parents with two teenaged children, a boy and a girl. While the larger social family remains true to form in exercising revenge on anyone who betrays the “mafia” family, the core typical family is totally atypical for it exercises revenge, not just for betrayal, but for the more fundamental failure of giving the members of the family due recognition and respect. The film is about respect and recognition in the context of a family banished from one society – both America and, more importantly, the mafia society to which the family belongs – as it attempts to “integrate” into French society when the members of the family do not speak French (though Maggie, we are led to believe from the scene in the supermarket, at least understands the language).

The film is comedy as grossed-out farce. It has all the essential elements of the comic – depiction of society and social groups – you name it, not simply the nuclear family, but French society, the FBI, adolescent youth – as immune to change. Precisely because of that resistance, we have the implied criticism of local incompetent municipal politics, of corrupt industries polluting the water supply, of plumbers who have left their professionalism in the past to become poor imitations of mafia shakedown artists, to the initial victim of Fred’s revenge, a seller of lobsters in the south of France who tried to pass off rotting lobsters as fresh. Society, not just American society, but the archetypal French society of small, trusted shop owners, and proud artisans with integrity, has become as rotten as the mafia. That society is left in ruins with all its institutions of order ravaged, while the core family so deeply afflicted with tzaraat is forced into exclusion once again, but it is the social unit that emerges unscathed as the exemplification of the happy family, “closer together than ever before.” Of course they resist change. That is their function in a comedy, but in doing so in such an extreme fashion, the family is used to reveal how the traditions of small town social system suffer deeply from the same rot. So, rather than the ideal being held up as a standard to reflect the fault lines in society, its worst exemplification is used for that purpose, namely a mafia family from Brooklyn. So the “family” persists, but the hypocritical society in which they enjoyed temporary refuge is left physically and institutionally as a ruin.

This is not a romantic comedy. The children, instead of being the repositories of complete innocence in contrast to the parents, instead of being the exemplifications of inexperience, are as deeply afflicted with tzaraat as their parents. The family emerges as more united, not by family values, but by their absolute intolerance of any form of disrespect. Each member of the family is a case of the search for recognition and respect gone awry.

And it is all carried out against a background of supposedly shocking killings and mutilations but where the shock effect of each incident has been totally emptied of any horror. We laugh at the most obscene cruelties. After all, this is a comedy, not a tragedy, and a comedy about tragedy. And Fred, or Giovanni, just wants to write his memoirs, his story of the unvarnished truth so that he can be recognized for who he truly is. Yet this is not a comedy of ideas. But each of the main characters in the family is an exemplification of initiative and imagination from the particular perspective of the small sub-world in which each lives. Each member of the family is hurt deeply in their own way. And each calculates a way to exact revenge in total disproportion to the incident that instigated their individual pain. Thus, will, feeling and thought are all central to each of the main characters’ make-up.  And each character acts as an archetypal Italian mafia Brooklynite, even satirizing that portrayal in the response of Fred to the replaying of Goodfellas in which he himself starred, and in the audience’s reaction to Fred’s sentimental, nostalgic and painful retelling of his tale of revenge with cheers and standing applause giving him finally the respect and recognition he has long sought. But it is too late, even though the tap water has lost its shitty brown colour and finally flows out with all its clarity restored in this perverse product of the hero refusing to take obscurantism as a cover for institutionalized violence against the social fabric and, instead, acts, translates false speech into corrective, even if comically violent, action. That is, of course, why the music that accompanies the film is so playful, something noted by very few of the critics, and even when De Semlyen comments on it, it as if the music is simply a foreign attachment to allow the film to pretend it is a comedy.

Something also overlooked is the way grammar is insistently abused in Mafia dramas, as is any logic, for logic is always about proportion, but there is absolutely no proportion between the instigation and the response. Michelle Pfeiffer blows up a supermarket simply because the local French grocer and a few of his customers diss Americans and her family as specific exemplifications of vulgar Americana, the same Americans who came ashore in 1944 to free Normandy from the Nazis. There is no effort by any of the members of this mafia family to persuade the French of the error of their ways. Speech is expressive and is not used to convince the other. Hence Warren’s comments about his father’s use of the word “fuck” to mean almost anything imaginable. We have, in reality, the antithesis to poetry. Without grammar, without logic, without the lyricism of poetry, we can observe humans behave in their purest uncivilized state and we understand why this family can never be given a refuge anywhere.

This comedy ends perfectly, with the integration of the social unit most fundamental to the stability and continuity of society, the family. Further, that family is fully adjusted to society as a whole. But since that society itself is so hypocritically dysfunctional, because that society has lost any sense of its integrity, the family cannot integrate into that society which is left in ruin and the family forced, because it is the exemplification of tzaraat, to move on, seek refuge elsewhere, though we are left totally convinced that this will be their constant state.

So instead of social reform, we get absurdity. Fred’s society, recalled with so much sentiment and nostalgia throughout the film, is the society of society-at large that does not give him what he believes he needs, but because it is a need based on totally false values, it comes both too late to save that society and certainly too late for any reform. Michelle Pfeiffer always wanted to act opposite Robert De Niro and she both gets her wish and manages to keep her man in the movie. She succeeds not only doubly, but triply because she shows that she can be one of the greatest comediennes of our time. She is just outstanding.

Watch the movie. Appreciate its deep structural meaning. And ignore the reviewers who describe every scene and give away the plot but never really understand the movie.


With the help of Alex Zisman


Admissions – movie review

Admissions (on netflix)


Howard Adelman

After I retired from YorkUniversity ten years ago, I was given a research position at PrincetonUniversity where I spent a year. I then was invited back the next year to teach a course at the WoodrowWilsonSchool. It was a wonderful experience and Princeton is an exceptional university. The two years at Princeton were enhanced many times over because I was able to spend a lot more time with three of my grandchildren. My oldest son, Jeremy, is the Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor of Spanish Civilization and Culture and was then chair of the History Department at PrincetonUniversity. My daughter-in-law, Debbie Prentice, was and still is the Chair of the Psychology Department at Princeton.

The movie, Admissions, is set at Princeton and focuses on the Admissions Department. I had only two things to do with Admissions when I was at Princeton. The first was very indirect, I was the beneficiary of ten brilliant students in my graduate class and the Dean would not allow me to admit one single additional student to the class lest Princeton standards be lowered. Second, I took part in a weekly Wednesday breakfast discussion group on Africa. At one of these breakfast meetings, the president of the university, who had spent two years in Africa, joined us for breakfast and the discussion. Afterwards, I told her about a student I had met in the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya when I was working in the camp. He was Somali and had spent his whole life in that camp. He had never had a pair of shoes. He had never been on a computer. He had studied with 71 other students in his class with 7 students sitting in a row sitting on a cement bench at a cement table all sharing a single text in temperatures that often exceeded 40 degrees Celsius. Yet he managed to stand 6th in the Kenya-wide high school matriculation exams.

I told the President that that student should be given an opportunity and Princeton should admit him. She thought it was a great idea, told me to go to Admissions and give them the details. She would arrange to have a faculty member interview him in Nairobi if I could arrange to get him there. I contacted CARE Canada and they arranged to fly him to Nairobi where he was interviewed. Princeton admitted him. He came, spent four years at Princeton and graduated. The first thing he learned was how to tie shoelaces.

The film, Admissions, is not about the ease of getting into Princeton if you are an exceptional student from a very deprived background, but uses the difficulty for any student to get in as a comedic backdrop.  Princeton only admits about 5% of those who apply. In the movie, Princeton has just slipped into the second best university in America from its previous ranking for the previous few years of first place. The Admissions Department is urged by the Dean of Admissions, Clarence Hall (Wallace Shawn) to make sure Princeton regains first place by ensuring the best entry class ever.

There is a ritual in America where parents (predominantly middle class) spend the spring term when their child is in Grade 11 visiting universities, presumably to help their son or daughter choose the school that best suits them. In reality, a good part of the reason for those visits is that the Admissions Departments track those applicants who visit and use the visit as one way to test the student’s commitment to accepting an offer from the university visited. For a school like Princeton, or any of the other top schools, they take it as an insult if students turn down their offers.

So the American big seasonal spring ritual for parents anxious to see their child enrolled in a top school is not Easter but the neurotic and desperate effort to impress Admissions officers with the student’s scholarly excellence, wide interests, leadership skills, and, perhaps most important of all, the student’s ability to impress the Admissions Committee that this applicant is one of the very elite among the elite and deserving of admission to the school of his or her choice. The segment when the film offers brief profiles of these students and then drops them through a trap door is a delightful piece of comedy, but the references to legacy admissions is just cloudy rather than incisively comedic. Because my grandson Sammy has been brought up by two professors who have spurned the mad admissions process as they watch batches of visiting students traipse around campus, they will ensure that Sammy gets to visit the top schools of his choice – they have limited it to three – but they refuse to be troubled by the issue. Sammy is even more laid back – or so he seems to me – about the issue.

The movie is built around the conceit that other parents cannot afford that aplomb. I hoped to watch a movie that either satirized the neurotic desperation of the parents and their child or else the universities for helping create and perpetuate such a feeding frenzy. The film offers only a few such opportunities and instead plays with gentle mellow humour and understanding of that parental anxiety and the university quest for status. The mood is tolerant and accepting rather than sharply critical.

The movie is built around the double problem of seeing the issue in a comedic way from the perspective of the Associate Admissions Office – Portia Nathan – who has to visit schools and wrestle with admissions, at the same time that she learns, or believes she learns, that the illegitimate son she bore seventeen years ago is applying to Princeton. So she is the mother of an applicant and an admissions officer at the same time and the film plays on an old trope in fiction of an adopted child of unknown parentage but with a modern twist at the end.

The movie is a light romp through this zaniness built around this obsessive compulsive but occasionally spontaneous and impulsive supposedly childless Admissions Officer who evidently displayed a chronic aversion to children as well as a propensity that is exhibited in the movie of being unlucky in love. Portia chose that career presumably because her spontaneity as a young girl in trying to follow in the footsteps of her outlandish mother, Suzanne, who is the author of The Masculine Myth, ended up in disaster. She went straight and became a control freak, directly the opposite of her mother played with great gusto by Lily Tomlin. The movie, of course, condenses both stages of visiting and applying to the same semester and certainly distorts the process for comedic effect. I thought the movie would be a satire of the whole mad process, but even in the hilarious scene dealing with the somewhat capricious selection process, the movie, while poking fun at it, is more bland than biting.

Tina Fey as the Admissions officer makes the film. Hundreds of other actresses would have buried the movie. Fey keeps it breathing and lends the script sparkle. Paul Rudd gives a very good performance as John Pressman, the teacher at the alternative high school where the young lad, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), is finishing high school and has decided he wants to get into Princeton. Rudd drops his one liner quickie jokes like a stand up comic with perfect timing while convincing the audience that he is the offbeat erious environmentalist rebel who rejected Harvard law school and an upper crust upbringing. Nat Wolff, on the other, is just too serious and too much the nerd while not at all looking the part. He has one problem. Though brilliant on his admission test scores without ever having taken a preparatory course or attended a practice school for his GPAs, he has lousy marks and no record as a volunteer, school president, editor of the yearbook or athletic career. He is just your everyday autodidact nerd and is a parody of my grandson. Though he has my grandson’s charm, he lacks my grandson’s self-deprecating dry wit and self-confidence that could have made the part very funny. The role is poorly written and poorly cast.

In the movie, the dilemma is that Jeremiah as the applicant is too risky and not suitable for Princeton. But we are never convinced of this so the comedy does not work at its very core.

I will not tell you how Portia Nathan gets around the problem But there is more than a passing glance to her namesake in The Merchant of Venice where, in the Shakespearian version, mercy is stressed as blessing both the giver and the receiver, but to get to that mercy, legal procedures need to be sidestepped. But this Portia does not emerge a winner. The film is a light but reasonably well written comedy (Karen Croner) and well directed by Paul Weitz. There are a number of small well acted humorous character roles – Michael Sheen as the poet and first lover of Portia. However, the Dean of Students (Clarence Hall played by Wallace Shawn) offers only a few opportunities for laughs and Corrine, Gloria Reuben as Portia’s rival for succeeding Clarence as Dean of Admissions, is given not one. When you see the openings that are just never seized, you want to scream at the movie rather than the parental or university madness.

Do not go out of your way to watch this movie – except if you have a connection with Princeton. Do not mark accept or reject, but put it on your waiting list for a time when you have no better choice. The movie is a pleasant diversion – nothing more. See it if you like a number of funny lines and some delightful characters, but do not expect to learn the secret of how to get into Princeton.