Vacuous Comedy About My Father Explores White-On-White Racism

Movies Reviews Sebastian Maniscalco
Vacuous Comedy About My Father Explores White-On-White Racism

Director Laura Terruso’s About My Father purports to be a story about immigrants, but it wants you to consider that people descended from the ancestors of travelers on the Mayflower are also immigrants, too. Yes, we’re all immigrants in America—isn’t that a nice, warm thought, like someone saying that they “don’t see” skin color? As with the latter assertion, it’s not as simple as that. But when I read a little bit more about Sebastian Maniscalco, the film’s lead actor and co-screenwriter (alongside Austen Earl), whose life the narrative is loosely based on and whose main occupation is a stand-up comedian who peddles in “anti-wokeness” and nostalgia for the “good old days,” everything started to come together. Suddenly, I was Jake Gyllenhaal cracking the Zodiac cypher code.

Because English ancestors of the pilgrims are in no way the same as first-generation Italian-Americans like Sebastian, who grew up in Chicago after his father, Salvo (played by Robert De Niro), immigrated from Sicily. Salvo is an extremely traditional immigrant father and uber-Italian (despite, hilariously, De Niro only being 1⁄4 Italian), an esteemed women’s hairstylist who taught his son to work hard and earn his keep, and to keep himself overpoweringly cologned at all times. This schism of difference between WASPs and “ethnic whites” is what most of the film is about. And Maniscalco fully understands that ethnic backgrounds do color one’s experience in America, even if you’re white. So, when Sebastian decides it’s about time to pop the question to his Anglo-Saxon girlfriend, Ellie Collins (Leslie Bibb), he’s forced to contend not only with her cartoonishly white-bread, wealthy family, but his own father, who won’t hand over his ring until he meets Ellie’s clan.

Hijinks and shenanigans ensue in this WASPs vs. ethnic whites culture clash, all taking place on the Collins family’s vast summer home smack dab in the middle of a country club—the whitest location possible. Their family is the most melodramatic caricature of whiteness: Ellie’s mother Tigger (Kim Cattrall) is an esteemed senator; her father Bill (David Rasche, beloved as Karl on Succession) owns a chain of hotels; her older brother Lucky (Anders Holm) is a druggie playboy with a stake in bitcoin; and her younger brother Doug (Brett Dier) is a “woke” hippie cartoon who can’t stomach the reality that their country club was built by slave labor. 

Ellie, depicted as the most reasonable of the wacky bunch, is nevertheless an up-and-coming artist who peddles in minimalist vagina portraits and who indulges in matching pajama sets with the rest of her insane family. Thus, there is an immediate awkwardness with Salvo’s presence—that of an old-school, working-class guy who needs to know how much lunch costs so he can pay the Collins clan back, and who can’t fathom the thought of spending a day doing nothing but enjoying it.

About My Father is less interested in exploring the nuances of class and ethnicity in America than crafting a black-and-white, Us vs. Them comedy, hinged upon the conceit that deep down, it’s okay, because we’re all immigrants in this melting pot we call America. It concludes with the notion that growing up working-class can instill a good, honest work ethic that’s robbed from one who grew up getting everything handed to them. Ellie ultimately covets that Sebastian has earned what he’s worked for in his life, whereas the revelation that her parents have been secretly buying all her artwork under the guise of a wealthy art dealer reinforces her disappointment in having been given all her opportunities. It’s an accurate sentiment that lacks the distinction that this country isn’t typically forthcoming to people with Sebastian’s economic background. 

Beyond the tepid cultural commentary, the film has few other redeeming qualities. Shot blandly by cinematographer Rogier Stoffers (The House with a Clock in its Walls), the film looks and feels about as cinematic as a television sitcom—though, the latter can sometimes look even better these days! Terruso, whose previous work includes the Apple TV+ series Dickinson, a Netflix teen comedy and a couple of little-seen indies, feels more like a hired hand in the director’s chair. The best part of the film is De Niro, who is positively endearing as the gruff old Salvo, a rough-and-tumble type of guy whose blunt definition of masculinity—imported from the old country—still does not exclude styling women’s hair or gardening. De Niro, pushing 80, has enough charisma and joie de vivre to seem a bit younger than he actually is, and it’s nice that even in crummy comedies (which he has been wont to do for many a year now) he can prove he’s still got the juice. Close runners-up are Rasche and Cattrall, who seem to be having a superb time playing up the whitest parents imaginable. Also, remember Anders Holm? No? From Workaholics? Well, I do, and I wish I saw more of him!!

Speaking of workaholics—the real Maniscalco did work for his spot in Hollywood, moving to L.A. and moonlighting at open mics in bowling alleys and bars while employed as waitstaff at a hotel. Still, Maniscalco’s vision of America in About My Father is stuck in the 20th century, when the American Dream was more readily attainable, back when Walt Disney had $50 to his name and could open up an animation storefront. Maniscalco may have been able to pull up his bootstraps and make something of himself, but it’s not as simple as just “working hard” anymore—now more than ever before, the world is geared to open its arms up to people like Ellie rather than people like Sebastian. For a guy who wrote a screenplay in which his character spends much of it haranguing his father for how out-of-touch he is, Maniscalco doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to realize he’s just as obtuse.

Director: Laura Terruso
Writer: Sebastian Maniscalco, Austen Earl
Starring: Sebastian Maniscalco, Robert De Niro, Leslie Bibb, Anders Holm, David Rasche, Kim Cattrall
Release Date: May 26, 2023

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

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