“Anybody who doesn’t contradict me can expect nothing but good things,” “Fred Blake” (Robert De Niro) explains in item 10 of his David Letterman-style countdown of what he considers his best qualities. Fred is his current nom de witness protection. Formerly, he was Giovanni Manzoni, a made man in the mob, now being hidden in the Normandy region of France with his wife and teenage children under the bleary but watchful eyes of the long-suffering federal marshal, Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones). “Try to fit in,” he tells them. “I’m tired of finding you a new place every 90 days.” But those who do contradict Fred, we are shown, can end up sleeping with the fishes or just being buried in the back yard.
Co-writer/director Luc Besson enjoys genre mash-ups that can be outrageous to the point of being deranged. Sometimes that mixture of mayhem, comedy, and sentiment works better than others. Here, it works pretty well, if the idea of a combination of “The Sopranos” and “The Addams Family” seems appealing.
Fred (as we will call him) and his family are not cruel or insensitive. Fred and “Maggie” (Michelle Pfeiffer) love each other and their children, Belle (“Glee’s” Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo). You might think of them as your friendly neighborhood sociopaths with impulse control issues. Maggie is a bit of a firebug, but like her husband, she directs her antisocial behavior at those who have violated her moral code in some way, usually by being rude to her. Warren has a remarkably precocious, even preternatural, ability to size up the culture, cliques, and power of the high school in one day and master it the next, with a piece of every action in the school and a hefty squad of enforcers. Belle has her mother’s temper and her father’s wicked way with weapons — also a crush on a student teacher. And of course the guys who once dubbed Fred a made man now want to make him a dead man, with a dirty death, meaning it will be very painful for him and his family.
At the moment, though, what is occupying Fred’s attention is the barbecue the family is planning for the neighbors, the memoir he is banging out on the manual typewriter, and the brown water that comes out of the faucet. Also on his Letterman list is his pride in seeing things through to the finish and his satisfaction in knowing that his sadistic urges are exclusively applied when he causes pain for a good reason. And then, as a representative from America, he is invited to discuss an American film, Frank Sinatra’s “Some Came Running.” But there is a mix-up and the film he ends up responding to is none other than “Goodfellas.” Starring, of course, De Niro.
Yes, the plot is over the top and silly. But it isn’t really about the Blakes or about the mob. It is about the movies, and Luc Besson’s stylish fun in playing with them. What works is the performances by De Niro and Pfeiffer who have showed in “Analyze This” and “Married to the Mob” that they know how to tweak the kind of crime drama portrayals they deliver in “The Godfather, Part II,” “Scarface,” and, well, “Goodfellas” for comic purpose without making them silly or over the top. There is something giddily liberating about watching characters respond to the indignities of everyday life with such extreme measures, and something satisfying about knowing they will be able to respond to the extreme measures that are headed their way.
Parents should know that this film includes extensive and graphic crime-related violence with many shoot-outs and explosions, some chases, dead bodies, bullies, disturbing images, very strong language used by teenagers and adults, drinking, smoking, sexual references and a brief explicit situation. There is an attempted suicide and a threatened rape.
Family discussion: What qualities did Belle and Warren inherit from their parents? Why did Fred want to write his story? How do you see the influence of American films on Luc Besson’s directing style?
If you like this, try: “Analyze This,” “Married to the Mob,” “Goodfellas,” and “Some Came Running”