In a career spanning 25-plus years, Sebastian Maniscalco has conquered the stand-up sphere with his own style of slice of life storytelling, undercut with working class roots. When he’s insulting, it may only be to those who challenge his work ethic, and that of his Italian-born immigrant parents who must’ve been clear in their idea of familial upbringing. I only wish that could’ve been the same case when turning a key chapter of his life into an autobiographical summer comedy. One where the end result is like reciting punchlines like a rowdy audiobook at a blank wall. About My Father aims for the moon when trying to express relatable hilarity, but can’t quite steady on the yaw, pratfalling hard to the ground while gaining minimal levity.
Working alongside co-writer Austen Earl (The Santa Clauses) and director Laura Terruso (Hello, My Name is Doris), Maniscalco fashions a roughly self-insert version of himself. Instead of comedian, he’s a man of many hats at a Chicago hotel, maintaining strong bonds with hairdresser dad Salvo (Robert DeNiro), and fostering a romance with art gallery owner Ellie (a fairly acerbic Leslie Bibb). Sebastian has suddenly found himself straying away from his scrappy, account-for-everything paideia, in favor of newfound independence with the intelligent and affluent. And he looks to capitalize by proposing to Ellie while the summer sun looks on, on a 4th of July getaway in the Virginia wilderness with her quirky, objectively wealthy family. That’s already one catch; the other’s Salvo insisting on joining his son, in exchange for a spare family wedding ring.
From here, culture clash chaos ensues that would fill out at least four sitcom pilots, all of whom wouldn’t survive the focus group testing phase. Antics involving peacocks, flyboard boots, a botched haircut before a TV interview, manly fragrance, Christmas cards, motion sickness and indifferences of nurturing inundate Earl’s story blueprint like zingers extracted from unused Bosom Buddies scraps. Only once or twice did I find something relatively amusing, and only once did a particular plot concept stay on the right path to keep this otherwise typical and uninspiring adventure aloft. At a merciful hair under 90 minutes, what all it has to say takes several random swings to effectively belabor the point.
I could still appreciate the hard working tirelessness in Maniscalco’s chunk of the writing. Even still, it’s likely stronger when performed on stage. Or even better, as the basis of a memoir, which he would excel at narrating the audiobook for. Not so much when punchlines are copy/pasted into a film script, and similar jabs have been known to coexist with more homogeneity in better written comedies. Comparing writing styles, Sebastian wins the footrace weaving a fondness for the past, and a deep respect for family ties into a challenged script. And he’s actually decent to watch on screen, when the material plays to his strengths as both an actor, and a conveyor of experience. He has some fair chemistry with DeNiro, emulating some realism with the “father and son on opposing ends” dynamic. However, to see the latter stumble into yet another studio comedy with Meet the Parents level stakes and shtick, when he doesn’t quite need to, and the material’s this flat, it’s troubling. Very troubling. But knowing he’ll be in Scorsese’s wing again later this year, I can let that slide.
Not so much the ongoing, quiet riot war of class between Salvo and his counterpart. No rivals, no bad blood. Just a counterpart to ruffle some feathers for Ellie’s dad, hotel magnate Bill (David Rasche). The dynamic circling around his brood – politician wife Tigger (Kim Cattrall), extrovert older son Lucky (Anders Holm), and awkward little bro Doug (Brett Dier), would make for a rough sitcom concept in itself, lump summed into Maniscalco’s love story, with Bill pulling a few business tricks to potentially lure Sebastian out of Chicago should the marriage proposal succeed. The vibe this group lay out borders on annoying, but ends up somewhat middling, offering much justification for their quirks. Cattrall, however, saves the day in places. Her comic presence, long missing from the big screen, is considerably unworthy of this film. And yet, in those spots, I felt like I was almost having fun because she was around.
Any sort of positive emotion remains very short-lived, as this venture into romance and personal freedom really hits the skids too early, bobbing like a cork in calm water. Everyone, including director Terruso whose efforts putter into an auxiliary role before long, is going through worn-out motions after a lengthy period of establishing historical lineage, and just what’s on the line. Eventually, nothing’s really gained or lost that hasn’t already been tackled with a more theatrical panache in earlier films made with far more confident hands. It’s the kind of screen-grabbing vanity feature that, were it not for Maniscalco’s rising star quality, would’ve been destined for streaming.
Faithful fans of the stand-up icon, those who’ve followed him for years may follow in small droves to the cinema for his first leading part. Only having seen smatters of his supporting performances in recent time, I could only gain a minimal understanding of his strengths as an actor. He’s fine enough here, but if he were to break free from the sitcom-like tendencies in his writing, then he could really soar. Despite an honest, good-natured approach to Maniscalco’s family history, About My Father can’t live up to its intents, showing the heightened differences and similarities of immigrant upbringing with no control. A very tough sit, one I wouldn’t go through again, where an already naturally witty story can’t go five seconds without interjecting for the sake of comedy. It didn’t need to try this hard. (D+; 2/5)
About My Father opens in wide release May 26, early showtimes start 3PM May 25; rated PG-13 for suggestive material, language and partial nudity; 89 minutes.