About My Father is a motion picture spawned straight from the act of a stand-up comedian, and it shows. It’s not even the only film hitting theatres this weekend based on a stand-up routine (but it was the only one screened in advance for critics), so I can’t say it’s the better of the two. What I can say is that About My Father isn’t very good; a low energy, sitcom level affair that probably kills on stage, but dies a slow death when acted out in a visual medium by actors tethered to well worn, hackneyed material.
The stand-up comic in question here is Sebastian Maniscalco, one of the hottest acts on the scene today. In About My Father, he plays a fictional version of himself: a hotel manager named Sebastian who’s about to get married to the love of his life, Ellie (Leslie Bibb), an artist from a wealthy family flush with old money. Sebastian comes from a more modest, blue collar background, the son of an immigrant hairstylist named Salvo (Robert De Niro). A traditionalist, Salvo wants to meet Ellie’s family to make sure they’re good, upstanding people and not the posh snobs he fears them to be. When Sebastian gets invited to her family’s annual Fourth of July bash behind the walls of their gated community, he’s allowed to bring Salvo along. Salvo is his usual obstinate self, while Sebastian tries way too hard to not look like an embarrassment in front of his old man.
About My Father is a working class comedy for the masses, albeit one without any genuine laughs or points of view beyond being very basically “Sicilian” and “Chicago.” Sebastian and Salvo are goofy, but resoundingly down to earth people brought into a world of wealth and taste that seeks to keep them at arm’s length. It’s a snobs versus slobs satire mashed up with the tale of a child trying to overcome their horrifically embarrassing and corny folks. It’s the type of stuff that could help pad out a stand-up set to guffaws and knowing applause, or enough plot to round out a twenty-two-minutes-plus-commercials episode of a weekly series. It practically writes itself, and yet About My Father wheezes its way unfunnily to not even hitting the ninety minute mark.
The problems with About My Father are obvious and numerous, but one key downside stands head and shoulders above the rest. The script from Maniscalco and co-writer Austen Earl is penned to feel almost like a stand-up set, complete with awkwardly integrated voiceovers and uncomfortable pauses like everyone is waiting for laughs that are never going to come. Punchlines and gags are telegraphed so far in advance by the script that the comedic timing of this thing is way off. Director Laura Terruso doesn’t put in much effort, shooting everything as it is and not adding anything that could remotely be classified as a stylistic flourish to break up the monotony.
Maniscalco doesn’t possess the charisma necessary to play the lead in a motion picture, delivering a wooden performance that further drains any comedy from the material. De Niro has done this type of role before, and much better, so he can’t elevate About My Father beyond its lowly stature. Bibb has a character so underwritten that she’s basically a non-entity, and the supporting cast playing her family – Anders Holm as Ellie’s arrogant older brother, Brett Dier as her new agey younger brother, Kim Catrall as the mother, and the only standout member of the cast, David Rasche as her chain hotel owner father – are forced into playing cliches as simplistically as they’ve been written.
But the biggest and most obvious problem with About My Father is that it’s a run-of-the-mill comedy that lacks any sort of conviction. There are zingers and plenty of set pieces, but I didn’t laugh a single time while watching About My Father, and I smiled twice. It’s not that Maniscalco’s vision for what the film should be is devoid of potential or promise, but that it’s delivered with all the exhausted velocity and force of someone who has had to tell this same story over and over again for the past decade on the road. Blue collar comedy pitched at this level should feel like a giddy release of easily relatable tensions. It should tell a familiar story in a new, energetic light with an original voice. There’s nothing at all to distinguish what Maniscalco and company are doing with About My Father from any number of other culture clash comedies before it. Instead of feeling like a piece of entertainment, About My Father feels like a calculate cash grab designed to mint a new star. It’s something that studios have been doing since the invention of cinema, but this one feels like a particularly lazy effort.
About My Father opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, May 26, 2023.
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