By Preston Wilder
Trailers are a curse. They give away much of the plot, and most of the good lines. Yet there is a case when it may be useful to watch a trailer before watching the film itself, if only as an early-warning system (granted, it’s not much help when you’re sitting in a cinema). Here’s the rule of thumb: if you’ve watched the first 20 minutes and already seen 90 per cent of what made it into the trailer, give up and walk away. It’s a clear sign that the film’s only asset is its premise, and the rest of it will be taken up with lame, unsuccessful efforts to develop that premise.
Something like that happens in Malavita, known as The Family in the US market. Malavita is the name of the family dog, who does nothing but growl occasionally (the title is irrelevant, albeit slightly more interesting than The Family); the rest of the close-knit clan is made up of Fred (Robert De Niro), Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and their two teenage kids Belle and Warren. Fred is an American writer, newly settled in a village in Normandy – but in fact Fred is really Giovanni, an ex-Mafioso turned snitch who’s now living under an assumed name in the Witness Protection Programme, shepherded by grumpy FBI agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) and keenly pursued by his former colleagues.
The joke is that Fred and his family (oddly, the others don’t seem to have changed their real names) try to be normal but keep reverting to their Mafia ways. Maggie blows up the village supermarket with a home-made bomb after a clerk disrespects her; Belle rearranges the face of a teenage would-be Lothario with a tennis racket; Warren becomes the school capo, running the place with a ruthless system of sticks and carrots. All this takes place in the first half-hour, and almost all of it was in the trailer. Then the film peters out into laboured jokes, half-baked comic wheezes, startlingly brutal violence and (admittedly) a handful of strong moments from its over-qualified lead actors.
Say what you like about Malavita, but the leads don’t disgrace themselves. De Niro lost his Great Actor status years ago but he strikes a fine balance here, legitimately angry – not the sloppy grouchy anger of irascible Jack in Meet the Fockers but blind, murderous rage – yet also restrained and rueful, autumnal. Pfeiffer doesn’t get a lot to do, yet Maggie has one scene where Fred is getting frisky – and Pfeiffer relaxes, grows playful, and suddenly seems like the world’s most natural (and beautiful) actress. Still, neither star gets enough good material, and they finally go down with the sinking ship around them.
Everything thuds in this movie. The jokes range from funny-if-you’re-French to just plain unfunny. One long sequence has Fred listing the “Top 10 reasons why I’m a good guy” – he says stuff like “If you give me a job, I’ll always see it through” while the film shows him carrying out some Mafia atrocity – and you’d think 10 jokes in a row would produce at least one small chuckle, but in fact all 10 are terrible. The constant jaunty music reeks of desperation, ditto the repeated glimpses of Fred’s violent fantasies. A lot of it – like Belle’s true romance with an older man – is just dead weight. One scene has Maggie going to church, where the friendly priest (unaware of her dark past) invites her to the confessional. The classic way of filming such a joke might be to focus on the priest’s face as she pours out her story, going from shocked to horrified to some slapstick punchline (on his knees and praying for her soul, perhaps?). Instead, director Luc Besson leaves the scene hanging then comes back to it several days later, with the traumatised priest now ordering Maggie out of his church. I’m not saying the classic way is the only way – but Besson’s staging kills the joke, and that’s not the only example.
Malavita rallies slightly at the climax, mostly because it’s an action climax that doesn’t try for comedy. Besson is, of course, a European treasure when it comes to action flicks – a producer whose Paris ‘factory’ churns out pulse-pounders (notably The Transporter and Taken) that are better and quirkier than Hollywood’s – and Malavita must be seen as a misstep, a good idea that wasn’t properly thought out (to paraphrase that famous dying actor: ‘Shoot-outs are easy. Comedy is hard’). At least you get De Niro sitting down to watch Goodfellas when Fred pays a visit to the local film society, a nicely meta moment that’ s a bit self-indulgent but also unique – a fun triangulation of actor, character and cinematic history. You won’t find that in the trailer.
DIRECTED BY Luc Besson
STARRING Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones
US/France 2013 111 mins