If it’s true that every U.S. senator looks in the mirror and sees a president, it’s even truer that every stand-up comedian does the same and sees a movie star. The latest comic looking to upgrade to the silver screen is Sebastian Maniscalco, who specializes in routines revolving around his Italian-American heritage in his act. The result is About My Father, which the comedian co-wrote (with Austen Earl) and stars in opposite Robert De Niro, delivering the latest in his series of comically grumpy-old-man performances.
The film feels so much like the pilot for a network sitcom (it’s not dirty enough for streaming) that you wonder why the cast isn’t smiling in a montage scored to a perky theme song during the opening credits. To quickly bring the audience up to speed about his persona, Maniscalco narrates a short lecture about his family history and Sicilian roots, complete with images of Italian men wearing tight Speedos.
About My Father
The Bottom Line
Damp family fireworks.
He also talks about his widowed father Salvo (De Niro), a preening hairstylist whom we first see in a younger version for which De Niro sports a dyed beard and ponytail (presumably, that de-aging process in The Irishman was too expensive). Sebastian — he doesn’t bother to change his name for the character, but here he’s a hotel manager rather than a comedian — also shows off his beautiful girlfriend Ellie (Leslie Bibb, appealing as always), whose WASP roots date back to the Mayflower.
That last piece of information should immediately clue you in about which comedic route the film is going to pursue. If not, I’ve got two words for you: culture clash. Ellie’s wealthy patrician parents invite her and Sebastian to spend July 4th weekend with them at their palatial summer estate. Sebastian is reluctant to leave his father alone for the holiday, especially since Salvo spares no opportunity to guilt trip him about it. Not to mention blackmailing him by refusing to give him his mother’s ring to propose to Ellie unless he meets the parents first.
You can pretty much figure out the rest. A nervous Sebastian, a bubbly Ellie and an ornery Salvo head to Virginia (actually Mobile, Alabama), where they’re met by Ellie’s obnoxious older brother Lucky (Anders Holm, Comedy Central’s Workaholics), who whisks them to the estate via helicopter. There, Sebastian and his father are introduced to Ellie’s folks Bill (David Rasche) and Tigger (Kim Cattrall, and I’m not kidding about her character’s name); her brother Doug (Brett Bier, Jane the Virgin), the family’s outlier with his New Age demeanor and fondness for sound bowls; and the family’s pet peacocks, who have the run of the estate.
Hilarity fails to ensue via such episodes as Sebastian pretending to be a bad tennis player to impress his father (don’t ask) and having to reveal himself when his game partner Tigger becomes irate at his feigned fumbling. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’re familiar with the would-be comic highlight in which Sebastian rides some sort of water jetpack and winds up exposing himself when his trunks fall down. And when Salvo generously offers to make the family a real Italian dinner, he’s forced to improvise the ingredients with disastrous results.
Maniscalco, who regularly sells out arenas, is one of the most popular stand-ups going these days and doesn’t deviate too far from his comedic persona in this first starring role (he’s previously been in such films as Green Book and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, the latter also with De Niro). He’s smart enough to tone down his manic energy for the screen and proves appealing, especially when displaying his character’s vulnerability. De Niro, too, thankfully brings it down a notch from such movies as Dirty Grandpa, relying on his decades of screen iconicism to be comically intimidating and fully embodying Sebastian’s description of Salvo having a “resting bitch face.” Cattrall is a lot of fun, especially when her politician character has a complete meltdown after Salvo gives her a dramatic makeover just prior to a television appearance.
About My Father isn’t nearly as funny as it aspires to be, but its saving grace is its lack of mean spirits. Most of the characters are caricatures to some degree, but they’re never viciously mocked. Lucky, for instance, comes across like an a-hole at first but ultimately turns out to be something of a mensch (not a term he would understand), and even when Ellie’s parents are caught in an elaborate deception their motives are good-hearted. The film’s genuine sweetness and affection for its characters go a long way toward compensating for its numbing overfamiliarity.
Production companies: Depth of Field, Lionsgate
Cast: Sebastian Maniscalco, Robert De Niro, Leslie Bibb, Anders Holm, David Rasche, Brett Dier, Kim Cattrall
Director: Laura Terruso
Screenwriters: Austen Earl, Sebastian Maniscalco
Producers: Andrew Miano, Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz, Judi Marmel
Executive producers; Jared Ian Goldman, Dan Balgoyen, Christopher Woodrow, Chris Fenton
Director of photography: Rogier Stoffers
Production designer: Javiera Varas
Editor: Scott D. Hanson
Costume designer: Brenda Abbandando
Composer: Stephanie Economou
1 hour 29 minutes