In this enjoyable comedy that he also co-wrote, the successful stand-up comedian makes a run for leading man fame as a version of himself.
Following a string of supporting parts in films such as “Tag,” “Green Book,” and “The Irishman,” Sebastian Maniscalco makes his first foray into leading man territory with “About My Father,” a family comedy based on the semi-autobiographical material that made his stand-up routine a financial and cultural success. It’s questionable praise to suggest it’s better than all three “Meet the Parents” pictures, but it’s made more meaningful since it co-stars Robert De Niro — and, more crucially, really shows recognizable human behavior within its admirably wacky set pieces. Whether or not Maniscalco has a true career as a movie star, he makes an appealing romantic lead, and director Laura Terruso cleverly offers humorous payoffs that tap into his wheelhouse while presenting him to a larger audience.
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Maniscalco portrays “himself,” an affluent boutique hotel manager in Chicago who falls for painter and artist Ellie Collins (Leslie Bibb). Sebastian, the son of widowed Italian immigrant hairdresser Salvo (De Niro), is wary of the Collins family’s wealth, which owns an international chain of resorts and hotels, but when Ellie invites him to meet her parents during a Fourth of July holiday celebration, he decides it’s a perfect opportunity to propose. The only snag is that Salvo insists on personally verifying the Collinses before consenting to pass over the family ring Sebastian had wanted to use for his proposal.
Sebastian navigates each social opportunity with gritted teeth, fearful of meeting Ellie’s blue-blood parents Bill (David Rasche) and Tigger (Kim Cattrall), and the inevitable culture clashes between them and blue-collar Salvo. But what bothers him even more than Salvo’s disapproval of the Collinses is when his father begins to try to fit in, forcing him to wonder whether he’s supporting a betrayal of the solid immigrant upbringing around which the Maniscalco formed their family identity. As Sebastian’s own negotiations with Salvo force some awkward conversations between father and son, their presence over the weekend unearths secrets between Collins family members, forcing Sebastian to find a way to make peace — even if it means jeopardizing his opportunity to propose to Ellie.
“About My Father,” written by Maniscalco and his colleague Austen Earl, fits the comedian as snugly as Salvo’s ball-hugging Speedo: He gets to exercise his acting muscles gently while still having enough room to offer riffs befitting of his stand-up performances. His viewers are aware that familial blunders are a cornerstone of his humor, which places this fictional investigation of comparable subject matter squarely in his wheelhouse. But, unlike 2022’s “Easter Sunday,” a similar wannabe-star vehicle for Filipino comedian Jo Koy, Terruso keeps the monologues to a comfortable minimum and encourages Maniscalco to wrestle with these familial dilemmas like, well, a real thespian.
Back in the “Fockers” period, De Niro — the onetime standard bearer for method acting intensity — mocked the gravity he’d developed with the likes of Martin Scorsese by collaborating with comic sensation Ben Stiller. He appears to be acting again after his recent reunion with Scorsese and filmmakers such as David O. Russell. Even though Salvo Maniscalco is carved from the same fabric as Jack Byrnes, he gives the cantankerous hairdresser sympathy, even lovability. It’s a strength of the film that it calls out Salvo’s tendency to criticize everyone around him, even if the instinct feels normal, and it portrays him — and everyone else around him — as sympathetic individuals attempting to navigate their way through unpleasant situations, effectively or not. However, he comes off as less believable as a hairdresser in a beauty salon than the person dropping off a pallet of haircare supplies in the alley behind one.