An early scene in the new comedy “About My Father” speaks volumes about both the film and the patriarch in question.
Sebastian Maniscalco, playing a fictionalized version of himself, notes how his Italian father expected him to work, and work hard, every hour possible as a young boy. So we see a flashback of the lad washing his father’s car at an age when most boys would be driving a Tonka truck over a mound of dirt.
The snippet is played for laughs, another sign of his pappy’s immigrant mindset. The moment comes back early and often, ultimately part of an homage to his father’s commendable work ethic that allowed his son to thrive.
Hard work. Sacrifice. Family. Loyalty. Respect. And, of course, a ripe sense of humor to balance all of the above.
“About My Father” packs all of the above into its crisp running time, and the comedian’s intentions couldn’t be more clear.
It’s Maniscalco’s biggest screen role to date, arriving at a time when theatrical comedies are few and far between. And the comic co-wrote the film and narrates those early scenes, making it as close to his voice as the big screen will allow.
For Maniscalco, hard work is in his DNA thanks to his immigrant father, Salvo, brought to life in the film by Oscar-winner Robert De Niro.
The actor certainly lives up to his dad’s life lessons off screen. He not only tours the country as a major stand-up attraction, is making his debut as a leading man and co-hosts “The Pete & Sebastian Show” podcast (or ‘cast to long-time listeners) but will be seen in a new HBO series later this year.
“How to Be a Bookie,” from prolific showrunner Chuck Lorre (“Two and a Half Men”), finds him playing a bookie balancing life, family and the legalization of sports gambling.
That’s on top of minor roles in films like “Green Book,” “The Irishman” and this Spring’s “Somewhere in Queens.”
“About My Father” is his bid to transcend character parts to films where his name is above the title. And, in doing so, he’s brought significant segments of his biography to the screen, hoping his fans will see his stand-up brand in every sequence.
Chances are, even those new to Maniscalco’s humor will bond with the material in play. That’s even more true for conservatives, who rarely see their values embodied on screens large or small.
Maniscalco plays a hotel employee eager to find the right moment to propose to his girlfriend Ellie Collins (Leslie Bibb). That chance arrives when her uber-wealthy family invites him to their July 4th gala. As plot devices would have it, Sebastian’s father Salvo (De Niro) tags along, setting up a culture clash for the ages.
Salvo insists on paying his own way whenever possible, squirms at the family’s exorbitant wealth and worries his son might not fit into the curious clan.
We know where everything is headed, but “About My Father” keeps select themes front and center.
Sebastian cringes at his father’s old-school ways, but he understands those curious antics shaped his career and sense of honor.
Mild story spoilers ahead:
Even the rich Collins clan, mocked without the venom aimed at the affluent in 2022 films like “The Menu” and “Triangle of Sadness,” get a measure of humanity for putting family first. The parents think dropping a few meaty checks can make their daughter, and her art career, afloat.
And they’re wrong.
Ellie bristles at their forced generosity. Sebastian, cut from the same moral cloth, thinks twice about the Collins’ significant offer to boost his hotelier career.
The “Fast & Furious” franchise is all about family, too, but that saga cares as much about car chases as it does those blood ties.
“About My Father” honors family at every step without sugarcoating the inevitable results. Parents can embarrass us at times. Children, especially the fully-grown kind, forget the value of gratitude.
None of this would matter if “About My Father” failed to make us laugh. Maniscalco proves he can anchor the material without falling back on his exaggerated comic shtick. Instead, he leans into the story’s grace notes, like how he sprays cologne into the air and gently wades into the mist … just like his Pappy taught him.
Immigrants are often in the news for all the wrong reasons, flooding the southern border insisting we make way for them. Many are hard-working, others not so much.
“About My Father” isn’t a Culture War treatise. Maniscalco’s stage routine is mostly clean and apolitical, and he’s not about to change that now. Nor does he throw a single sucker punch at Heartland USA, assuming you forgive a throwaway moment set at a same-sex wedding proposal.
Maniscalco knows he wouldn’t be where he is today, professionally or personally, if not for his real-life pa, a Chicago-based hairdresser. Hard work pays off, especially for immigrants hungry for the American dream.
It might even make you the star of your own life story.