About My Father
When was the first time that Robert De Niro did a flat-out comedy? Probably 1984’s “Falling in Love,” or maybe “Midnight Run,” which where he did slapstick for the first time and introduced that signature expression that’s done so very well for him as a bankable star: that stone-faced grimace that wants to communicate “I am withholding judgment on this thing that is happening in front of me” but that actually communicates “I want out of here” or “I want to die” or “I wish I could kill you.” The tight-lipped nascent 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 the “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” of modern American ethnic comedies, 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, it ticks all the boxes, and 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, is holding 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. Her family are immigrants, too, but they came over on the Mayflower, and that’s a long, long time ago. Ellie’s mother Tigger (Kim Catrall), a senator, and father Bill (David Rasche), invite Sebastian to attend the family’s annual get-together at their estate. 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 might find it a bit hard to believe 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 with cash. Salvo also seems pretty 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, probably with Frankie Goes to Hollywood blasting through the speakers. There’s a lot of this sort of stuff in the movie: 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 Bier) with his New Age stoner demeanor and obsession with learning to play sound bowls,
“About My Father” probably would have worked better as a period piece. It seems to be taking place in another time even though everyone is wearing modern clothes and making modern references. Movies from the 1930s through the 1950s had a lot of class-anxiety moments and were much better at putting the nuances across than most modern entertainment, even when they were basically slapstick-driven The characters also had snappier clothes.
All that having been said, there’s no denying that the ensemble plays off each other expertly, and that there are a number of 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, or the extended setpiece where Sebastian loses his swim trunks while futzing around with a flyboard rider near the prospective in-laws’ yacht. The script is smart about planting little bits of character information and then 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 all right, 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, gives the movie more than it gives him. There are a couple of scenes that suggest the stronger and 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 Bill where De Niro and the always fabulous Cattrall have such chemistry (even blowing cigar-smoke rings at each other) that 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)