When was the first time that Robert De Niro did a flat-out comedy? Probably "Midnight Run," in which he showed he was great at slapstick and comic banter, and introduced that signature expression that made him a bankable star, finally, as opposed to merely a great actor: the stone-faced look of disapproval. It wants to communicate "I am withholding judgment on this thing that is happening in front of me" but actually says "I want out of here," or "I want to die," or "I wish I could kill you." The tight-lipped proto-scowl, the burning stare, the squared shoulders. It's funny. It's always funny. You can add it to anything, even in copious quantities, and make it better. It's comedy pepper.
Comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, the co-writer and star of "About My Father," loves it so much that he built a film around it. Directed by Laura Terruso, "About My Father" wants to be another "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," and there are so few movies like that in theaters that it might become a success despite reviews like this one.
Narrated within an inch of its life, and willing the audience to believe that an Italian-American marrying into a WASP family would represent a culturally fraught scenario with high failure potential in 2023, the movie runs the gamut from mediocre to painless with occasional moments of charm. But there's no denying that it pushes some of the same buttons that helped turn the "Fockers" films, starring De Niro as another emotionally constipated patriarch, into gigantic box-office hits. From the "I can't believe that person just said that" reaction shots to the obligatory moments of over-the-top slapstick, "About My Father" ticks all the boxes. The result falls somewhere between the "Greek Wedding" movies and De Niro's "Dirty Grandpa," though it always stops short of doing anything genuinely provocative or disturbing.
Maniscalco's character is an attractive middle-aged man named Sebastian whose father, Salvo (De Niro), a widowed hairdresser, holds his late wife's wedding ring in reserve until he can check out whatever family his boy decides to marry into. The moment arrives when he falls in love with Ellie (Leslie Bibb), who, like Sebastian, is in the hotel business and has sort of a modified Manic Pixie Dream Girl personality (she paints abstracts that look like a part of the female anatomy). Ellie's family are immigrants, too, but they came over on the Mayflower, and that's a long, long time ago. Ellie's mother, Tigger (Kim Cattrall), a senator, and father, Bill (David Rasche), a moneybags country-club owner, invite Sebastian to attend the family's annual Independence Day get-together in their exclusive town. When Sebastian asks his dad for the ring, pop pressures his son into letting him tag along because he needs to vet the new in-laws and because there wouldn't be a movie if he didn't.
You may find it hard to accept that a guy who was supposedly a sought-after hairdresser in the 1980s would be unnerved by setting foot in a rich person's home, much less dining at a country club where the richest person reflexively picks up the check and the money exchange is handled with a signature rather than cash. Salvo also seems uptight and reactionary, even though the real-life version of a guy with his background would have done lines off the men's room sinks at Maxwell's Plum during the Reagan administration while Frankie Goes to Hollywood blasted through the speakers. There's a lot of this sort of stuff: earthy working guys expressing alarm and dismay at the lifestyles of the rich and famous and commiserating with each other about the weirdness of, say, Ellie's younger brother Doug (Brett Dier), with his New Age stoner demeanor and obsession with learning to play sound bowls, or her old brother Lucky (Anders Collins), a strapping, smiling, fratty doofus who exudes the natural authority of a rich man's son who knows he'll eventually inherit a fortune even though a squirrel could beat him at checkers.
"About My Father" would have worked better as a period piece. It seems to take place in another time even though everyone is wearing modern clothes and making modern references. (You know Ellie's folks are preppies because they wear boat shoes and tie sweaters around their necks.) Movies from the 1930s through the 1950s had a lot of class-anxiety moments and were better at putting the nuances across than recent entertainments like this one, even when they were slapstick-driven. The characters also had snappier clothes.
That said, there's no denying that the ensemble plays off each other expertly. There are several can't-miss comedy moments that employ ancient formulas, like the scene where somebody says, essentially, "There is no way in hell I will ever do a thing like that," and the movie cuts immediately to them doing it, and the extended setpiece where Sebastian loses his swim trunks while futzing with a flyboard rider near the prospective in-laws' yacht. The script is smart about planting bits of character information and paying them off later (like Sebastian's fear of flying in helicopters and his nightly ritual with his dad that involves spritzing cologne into the air and walking through the mist). The star is alright, sometimes more than that, and holds his own opposite De Niro, but if I were Ben Stiller or Kevin Hart, I wouldn't be watching my back.
De Niro, bless his heart, is the engine that keeps this refurbished jalopy puttering along for 90 minutes. There are a couple of scenes that suggest the stronger, more fascinating movie that might've been: Salvo talking to his late wife while sitting on a bench by himself at night, only to be interrupted by Doug, and a scene between Salvo and Tigger where De Niro and the always fabulous Cattrall display natural flirty chemistry (even blowing cigar-smoke rings at each other). You may fantasize about what the film might have turned into if they'd decided to go down that path.
Now playing in theaters.
About My Father (2023)
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