There are authentic Italian restaurants, and then there are the ersatz ones like the Olive Garden and the Macaroni Grill. The same sort of division can be seen in movies about Italians and Italian-Americans, and this one definitely falls into the second category. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the labor of love from one Robert Shallcross won’t achieve a measure of success among some audiences–indeed, it’s already run for a year in Grand Rapids, Michigan on word-of-mouth alone; after all, a similarly broad ethnic comedy like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” unexpectedly became a smash. But from any reasonable critical perspective, “Uncle Nino” belongs on a family-oriented cable channel rather than in a theatre. The publicity material on the picture calls it “a work of deep sentiment that avoids sentimentality,” but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not merely sentimental; it’s positively cloying–by the end you’re likely to be screaming “Basta, already!” And on the technical side, the production values are the sort that would fit the small screen far more snugly than they do the large one.
The story’s a banal one indeed. A suburban family is living the American dream/nightmare. Dad Robert Micelli (Joe Mantegna) is a driven corporate executive, who’s forced his family to move for his job and now spends more time at the office than at home, seeking a promotion. Wife Marie (Anne Archer) is left minding the house, unhappy that Robert is neglecting his kids. Rebellious teen son Bobby (Trevor Morgan) has fallen in with some prankish pals, neglects his chores and is more interested in his garage band than his studies. And younger daughter Gina (Gina Mantegna) spends most of her time either away at her friends’ houses or pestering her parents for a puppy.
Into this maelstrom of domestic woe comes Robert’s peculiar but lovable Uncle Nino (Pierrino Mascarino), suddenly arrived from Italia to visit his dead brother’s grave. He’s one of those charmingly eccentric old gents who might be rare in real life but are a dime a dozen in manipulative movies like this. He idolizes Abraham Lincoln, relishes good wine, loves working in gardens, prizes real flowers, and enjoys greeting each day by playing his violin, very loudly, on Robert’s front lawn–which he’d prefer to plant with vegetables and blooms. Nino is also a sort of family fairy godfather, with a recipe for every tribulation. He gets Gina her dog, of course, which she gets to keep despite Robert’s initial resistance; he bonds with Bobby, going so far as to join his band and persuading the most troublesome of the boy’s pals to give up smoking (one of the big climaxes here is the school talent show, which the kids enter against arrogant senior competition–guess who wins!); under his tutelage Marie begins cooking Italian cuisine from scratch and enjoying life again. But most of all, he teaches Robert what’s really important in life. Eventually dad drops out of the rat race and not only rejoins his brood but contacts his long-estranged sister. And, of course, he and Nino visit the cemetery in a scene designed to elicit tears
There’s a place for a movie like this–but it’s really on the Hallmark Hall of Fame rather than in an auditorium you have to pay to get into. “Uncle Nino” bristles with good intentions and bulges with saccharine lessons. The cast is clearly into the spirit of things, treating the material as sympathetically as possible. Mantegna positively oozes both ambition and regret over the demands of his job, and his daughter Gina is an appealing child. Archer, meanwhile, radiates resignation and concern, and Morgan makes the troubled but essentially responsible Bobby a far more likable figure than one might have expected. The supporting cast is pretty amateurish, but that’s to be expected in a no-frills production like this. The major attraction of “Uncle Nino,” though, will certainly be Mascarino, who, with his squints, shuffles, shrugs and soulful glances, squeezes every ounce of sentimentality out of the script. There’s not an iota of subtlety in the portrayal, but then Shallcross doesn’t ask for any, either as writer or as director.
Of course, that won’t matter much to the audience at which “Uncle Nino” is directed–families searching for sweet, sappy feel-good pictures with hopeful morals attached. There are apparently plenty of them in Grand Rapids. One suspects, though, that their numbers will be far smaller elsewhere.