While the new film starring and co-written by stand-up comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, About My Father, is a decidedly average autobiographical comedy, as a story of the unbreakable bond between a father and grown son, it’s not without its charm. The movie may not make you laugh out loud, but as a crowd-pleaser, it has its moments.
One of the top-selling comic voices in the nation, Maniscalco plays a Chicago hotel manager named Sebastian Maniscalco (?!), who is invited by fiancée Ellie (Leslie Bibb) to her parents’ summer home for the July 4th weekend. Sebastian is hesitant because going on the trip would mean leaving his elderly father Salvo (Robert De Niro) home alone, shortly after the death of his beloved wife and Sebastian’s mother. Ellie tells Sebastian to invite his immigrant, hairdresser father to the summer home for the weekend as well, the thought of which almost makes Sebastian’s brain explode, thinking of his cheapskate, working-class dad mingling with super-rich, eccentric WASPs—including Kim Catrall as politician mom Tigger; David Rasche as hotel entrepreneur Bill; Anders Holm as spoiled, douchey, eldest son Lucky; and Brett Dier as spiritualist, hippie younger son Doug.
Directed by Laura Terruso (Work It, Good Girls Get High), About My Father tends to work better when it’s not trying so hard. When things go broad (like most of the early scenes with Ellie’s family), I wasn’t responding. But once we realize her parents’ biggest flaw is that they want Ellie and Sebastian to move close to them in Virginia, and might even sweeten the pot by attempting to recruit Sebastian away from his current job to manage an elite hotel in D.C., they seem like pretty reasonable people. The truth is, there are no villains in this story, and I think that’s for the best. Sebastian’s biggest enemy is himself and his desire to fit in and have Ellie’s parents like him and think he knows how to behave around people with money. But Salvo is frequently uncomfortable around people for whom money has no value or meaning, a personal flaw of his own that he attempts to overcome.
About My Father starts out like a routine ’80s culture-clash comedy but mellows into something a bit more palpable in the back half. People often say that De Niro can be strong doing comedy, but I think that’s only true when the material is strong to begin with; he’s capable of making it better but not saving crap material from being crap. For as big as Salvo’s personality can get in his salon, he’s a man also used to feeling small around certain types of people, and he assumes Ellie’s parents are judging him constantly. Once he realizes he might actually grow to like them, he changes his tune, and the film feels a bit more like reality. As if the filmmakers were worried that sentimentality might overtake the laughs, jokes are thrown in too often, and it throws off the movie’s tone to its detriment.
Maniscalco has been popping up in strong supporting roles lately (The Irishman, Somewhere in Queens, Green Book), and I think having that in his back pocket keeps him from embarrassing himself in his first leading role. The affection that he and De Niro have for each other in these roles seems genuine and it carries the movie at times, especially when we see the routines and rituals they engage in that they’ve probably been doing for decades. I only wish there had been more moments like those throughout the film. Possibly more of a crowd pleaser than a critical success, About My Father has its heart in the right place; I only wish we got to see more of it in between the frequently stale jokes.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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