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Anyone for tennis? Sebastian Maniscalco and Robert De Niro gear up for the court in "About My Father."

I caught Sebastian Maniscalco’s standup act in the early 2000s, and I didn’t care for him, with all his judgments on how men and women ought to behave and dress. In recent years, though, the spindly Chicago native has started to grow on me as an actor, playing a crazy violent mafioso in The Irishman, contributing a fruity comic turn as the music producer Giorgio Moroder in Spinning Gold, and lending his voice to the Mario Bros. movie. Now he stars in About My Father, a comedy for which he also co-wrote the script. It’s the second movie this season about Italian-American families, and in contrast to Ray Romano’s wistful and soft-treading Somewhere in Queens (which Maniscalco also acted in), this is much more raucous and bright, and I find I like it better.

Maniscalco portrays a character named after himself, although this Sebastian manages a flourishing boutique hotel in the Windy City. His long-running relationship with an artist named Ellie (Leslie Bibb) takes a turn when her old-money parents in Maryland invite him to accompany her to their annual family-only July 4th party. He sees a chance to finally propose to her, but he needs his late mother’s engagement ring from his dad Salvatore (Robert De Niro), who wants to meet his prospective in-laws before giving up the rock. Salvo is a first-generation Sicilian immigrant who curses to the sky in his native language and has to know the price of everything before he pays for it, and Sebastian can only wonder what sort of impression his dad and Ellie’s white-bread parents will make on each other.

The premise of this story could have easily come from a film 40 years ago, as Sebastian tries to encourage his dad to be less molto Italiano in the uptight setting. The references in the script by Maniscalco and Austen Earl prevent things from going stale, as Sebastian notes his dad’s tracksuit and grim demeanor: “You look like the guy who killed John Wick’s dog.” (Salvo, for his part, has no idea who John Wick is.) A jetbooting mishap results in Sebastian exposing his naked self to Ellie’s family, and Sebastian’s fear of living down to a negative Italian stereotype ironically leads him into the woods to secretly bury a dead body — a pet bird’s rather than a person’s, thankfully. De Niro seems energized by the specificity of his role, and the material with Ellie’s ne’er-do-well brothers (Anders Holm and Brett Dier) strikes some different comic notes. The star himself delivers some punchy lines in Sebastian’s voiceover narration and displays some physical comedy chops too, as when the Maniscalco men indulge their habit of wearing ungodly amounts of cologne.

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I regret to say that I haven’t seen any of the three feature films that Laura Terruso directed before this one, but she keeps the energy levels up and avoids making any set pieces into duds. I was most afraid of this movie drowning in sentimentality as Sebastian comes to appreciate all his dad’s great qualities. That doesn’t happen thanks to some adroit filmmaking and performances. It can be hard to translate a standup comedian’s particular voice to a movie, but About My Father not only made me laugh out loud several times, it also feels unique to him. That makes it as welcome as a glass of prosecco this summer.

About My Father
Starring Sebastian Maniscalco and Robert De Niro. Directed by Laura Terruso. Written by Austen Earl and Sebastian Maniscalco. Rated PG-13.

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