The Family and A.K.A. Doc Pomus

A befuddling De Niro dud and a monument to a master Brill Building songwriter.


The Family is a movie made with so little respect for our intelligence that you wonder who would want to impose it on us. (Answer: Luc Besson, its alarmingly prolific director and co-writer.)

Let's start at the top. Several spoilers, if those are possible, follow.

Robert De Niro is Giovanni Manzoni, a New York Mafia boss who ratted out his fellow crime lords some years back, putting them in prison and himself and his family into the federal Witness Protection Program. Ever since then, Giovanni—renamed Fred Blake—and his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and now-teenage kids Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D'Leo) have been living in France, shielded from lethal emissaries of the incarcerated Mafiosi by a team of FBI agents led by Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).

Okay. Leaving aside the possibly irrelevant detail that the federal Witness Protection Program is run by the U.S. Marshals Service, not the FBI, would any government agency go to the major expense of relocating a Mafia snitch to Europe (especially France—next door to Italy), and assign to him a permanent detail of agents who presumably could be doing more important things? You'll recall that in Goodfellas, the equally endangered Mafia turncoat Henry Hill was tucked away much closer to home. (We'll be coming back to Goodfellas in a moment, I'm afraid.)

Because "Fred" is prone to murderous rages and beat someone to a pulp in the South of France, where the family previously lived, they've now been resettled in a small town in Normandy. It's an odd place. When the kids arrive at the local school for their first day of classes, we see that the local French students are capable of addressing them in pretty good English, even the troglodyte bullies. This is convenient, since Belle and Warren, despite their years of residence in France, appear to speak not a word of French. Nor does their mother. Fortunately for her, however, everyone else in the small town—waitresses, plumbers, priests and shop owners—speaks more-than-passable anglais as well. I don't know if you've ever been to a small town in France, but…well, let's move along.

The movie's conceit is that Fred isn't the only hothead in the family. When Maggie suspects that some locals in a store are gossiping about her—even though, again, she doesn't speak their language—she sets fire to the place and blows it up. Similarly, Belle reacts to rude behavior on the part of two schoolmates by stomping them to within inches of their lives. You might expect that someone could have seen Maggie exiting the store before it exploded, or that the clobbered students would finger Belle as their attacker. But this is not the movie in which to expect such things.

The picture's most resounding howler arises when Fred is approached by the head of a local cinema society to attend its screening of an American movie. (This is a major spoiler, but it's too flabbergasting to pass by.) The movie turns out to be Goodfellas—yes. And so we watch with jaws slowly sagging as Robert De Niro watches his younger self in Martin Scorsese's great film. We don't actually see any Goodfellas footage, but we do hear some of its famous dialogue—a small gift, perhaps, from Scorsese, who is one of this movie's producers. It might also be noted that among the thugs on Fred's trail is Vincent Pastore, who was similarly employed in Goodfellas. And that Malavita, the French crime novel on which this film is based, was published in English some years back under the title Badfellas.

The movie is fun in some parts—De Niro and Pfeiffer are pros, and they have an easy chemistry. But the movie doesn't seem to know what to do with itself. It meanders unproductively into backyard-barbecue scenes and overwrought teen romance. Director Besson, still noted for such solid '90s entertainments as The Professional and The Fifth Element, no longer displays much interest in visual grace. In order to show us the arrival of the gunmen who've finally tracked Fred down, he has one character suddenly decide to commit suicide by stepping off a high rooftop—solely so that he can give us a POV shot down past the character's splayed feet to the dark cars pulling up below. (The means by which the bad guys have located Fred, by the way, is astoundingly ludicrous.)

De Niro is an amiable codger here—one of his familiar latter-day personas. Jones is an equally familiar drawling grump. And it's difficult to watch Michelle Pfeiffer in this film without recalling the Mafia wife she had so much more fun with in the 1988 Married to the Mob. The movie is bland and muddled, and unworthy of such talented actors. Hope they had a nice time in Normandy.

A.K.A. Doc Pomus

Doc Pomus, one of the greatest songwriters of the R&B and Brill Building eras of the 1950s and '60s, is the subject of this fascinating documentary by filmmakers William Hechter and Peter Miller. It's a vivid chronicle of Pomus' musical times, and a consistently moving tribute to the man himself.

Pomus was born Jerome Felder in Brooklyn in 1925, and before long contracted polio—an incurable affliction back then. Reliant on crutches and later confined to a wheelchair, he was determined to make something of himself. "I was never one of those happy cripples," he said, "who stumbles around smiling and shiny-eyed, trying to get the world to shake its head sadly in my direction." He loved the blues he heard on the family radio, and as a teenager began singing in Greenwich Village nightclubs. This sounds unlikely—a heavy-set Jewish kid up onstage on his crutches—but Pomus was good (he sounded a lot like his idol, Joe Turner), and he cut a number of records.

Atlantic Records signed him—not as a singer, but as a songwriter, charged with turning out material for Atlantic artists like Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker. One of his songs, "Young Blood," was reworked by producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller for one of their groups, the Coasters, and it became a huge hit in 1957. Rock and roll had arrived, and soon Pomus (as he'd renamed himself) acquired a partner, Mort Shuman—a younger guy more conversant with the teen-oriented music that was sweeping the nation. Together, they churned out a phenomenal run of great songs for everyone from Dion and the Belmonts ("A Teenager in Love") to Elvis Presley ("Little Sister" and "(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame," among others), and, unforgettably, another Leiber and Stoller group, the Drifters, for whom they wrote such indelible songs as "This Magic Moment" and "Save the Last Dance for Me." In 1960, Pomus and Shuman scored 13 Top 10 hits.

Although many of the songs Pomus wrote (mainly with Shuman, but also with Phil Spector and others) were ostensibly aimed at the teen market, some were intensely personal. "Lonely Avenue," given a stark reading by Ray Charles, projected his lifelong sense of isolation. And "Save the Last Dance for Me" took on a tragic overtone for anyone who knew that Pomus was a man who would never be able to dance with anyone.

The movie is filled with vintage interview footage with Pomus—a mountain of a man in later years—and with his many admirers and colleagues: Dion, Lou Reed, Ben E. King, Dr. John, B.B. King (for whom Pomus wrote "There Must Be a Better World Somewhere," a Grammy-winning 1981 single). We learn that after his first marriage fell apart (Doc was very attractive to beautiful women, it seems) and Shuman departed and the IRS reduced him to near-poverty, he was compelled to become a professional gambler. We learn that Bob Dylan once came to him for help in writing lyrics. (Dylan is quoted here as saying, "Everything you need to know is in 'A Teenager in Love.'") And we learn that Doc's last words, to the friends and family gathered around his deathbed in 1991 were, "Thank you, thank you." By the end of the film, you might feel grateful yourself.