Following a handful of supporting roles in “Tag,” “Green Book” and “The Irishman,” Sebastian Maniscalco makes his first bid for leading-man status with “About My Father,” a family comedy sourced from the same semi-autobiographical material that made his stand-up a commercial and cultural phenomenon. To say it’s better than all three “Meet the Parents” films may be a dubious compliment, but it’s one made more significant because it co-stars Robert De Niro — and more importantly, actually features recognizable human behavior amidst its suitably outlandish set pieces. Whether or not Maniscalco has a legitimate future as a movie star, he proves a likeable presence as a romantic lead, while director Laura Terruso skillfully delivers comedic payoffs that tap into his wheelhouse while introducing him to a wider audience.
Maniscalco plays “himself,” the successful, Chicago-based manager of a boutique hotel who falls for painter and artist Ellie Collins (Leslie Bibb). The son of widowed Italian immigrant hairdresser Salvo (De Niro), Sebastian is slightly uneasy with the affluence of the Collins family, which owns an international chain of resorts and hotels, but when Ellie invites him to meet her parents over a Fourth of July holiday celebration, he decides it’s a perfect opportunity to propose. The only hiccup is that the family ring Sebastian had hoped to use for his proposal is held tightly by Salvo, who insists on vetting the Collinses himself before agreeing to hand it off.
Simultaneously nervous about meeting Ellie’s blue-blood parents Bill (David Rasche) and Tigger (Kim Cattrall) and the inevitable culture clash between them and blue-collar Salvo, Sebastian navigates each social opportunity with clenched unease. But what discomfits him even more than Salvo looking askance at the Collinses is when his father starts making an effort to fit in — prompting him to question if he’s encouraging a betrayal of the sturdy immigrant upbringing around which the Maniscalcos carved their family identity. As his own negotiation with Salvo forces some uncomfortable conversations between father and son, their presence over the weekend unearths secrets between members of the Collins family, forcing Sebastian to find a way to make the peace — even if it jeopardizes his ability to ask for Ellie’s hand in marriage.
Written by Maniscalco with his partner Austen Earl, “About My Father” fits the comedian as snugly as Salvo’s ball-hugging Speedo: He gets to lightly flex his acting muscles while enjoying enough room to deliver occasional riffs worthy of his stand-up routines. His audiences know that family peccadilloes are a cornerstone of that material, which nestles this fictional exploration of similar subject matter firmly in his comfort zone. But where 2022’s “Easter Sunday,” a similar wannabe-star vehicle for Filipino comedian Jo Koy, leaned too hard on finding opportunities for Koy to essentially replicate his stage show, Terruso keeps the monologuing to a comfortable minimum and encourages Maniscalco to wrestle with these familial dilemmas like, well, a real thespian.
Back in the “Fockers” era, De Niro — the onetime standard bearer for method-acting intensity — sent up the gravitas he’d cultivated with the likes of Martin Scorsese by working opposite comedy superstar Ben Stiller. After his recent reunion with Scorsese and filmmakers like David O. Russell, he seems to be actually acting again. Even if Salvo Maniscalco is cut from similar cloth to Jack Byrnes, he breathes humanity, even lovability, into the cantankerous hairdresser. It’s a virtue that the movie calls out Salvo’s inclinations to judge everyone around him, even as the impulse feels naturalistic, and it positions him — and everyone else around him — as sympathetic people trying to find their way, successfully or not, through awkward situations. That said, he looks less convincing holding court as a hairdresser in a beauty salon than the guy dropping off a pallet of haircare products in the alley behind one.
After “Talladega Nights,” “Zookeeper,” “Hell Baby” and “Tag” among others, Leslie Bibb has earned her pedigree as the comedy leading-man whisperer, and tunes right into Maniscalco’s wavelength as an onscreen partner who’s substantial but also in on the joke. Rasche capitalizes on his “Succession” career bump by virtually codifying knowing, insulated, old rich white guy privilege as Bill. Cattrall rekindles not just her razor-sharp comedic instincts from her “Sex and the City” days, but even from “Police Academy” and “Big Trouble in Little China,” portraying a hard-nosed senator shrewd enough to recognize when a personally disastrous haircut (provided by Salvo) can be exploited for political gain. Meanwhile, Anders Holm and Brett Dier play the Collinses’ overindulged sons Lucky and Doug, whose decadent self-indulgence further underscores Sebastian’s ambition and drive when not generating some easy laughs at their expense.
Ultimately, the fact that Sebastian is less intimidated by his future in-laws than by the potential for his father to embarrass him creates a compelling dynamic with which many audience members will identify. There are sadly no discussions about which animals can or cannot be milked, but in place of them are considerably more relatable scenes, like the one where a parent is unrelenting, even obnoxious, in their determination to pay a check. As a comedian, Maniscalco has tapped into universal experiences that amuse and embarrass many generations and cultures, and he’s translated that sensation to the screen with affection and humor. With Terruso’s light touch as a director, he’s also delivered what’s become an increasing rarity on the big screen: a comedy that can entertain the whole family.
In a drought of similar offerings, “About My Father” works because it aims at specific targets but goes big and broad enough to encompass ones outside of the bullseye. Maniscalco hasn’t quite proven he can carry a movie that’s not inspired by or “about” him, but this first effort is charming and earnest enough to encourage viewers to meet him where he’s currently at in his career.