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'About My Father' is a messy, limp rom-com with Robert De Niro as bait

Robert De Niro stars as Salvo in a scene from "About My Father." Lionsgate via AP

If you were to resurrect the tired storyline of a young couple having to meet their partners’ parents and were looking around for someone to play the gruff, disapproving future father-in-law, one name should definitely not pop out. Robert De Niro.

Yes, he's hysterical as the intense, no-nonsense, overprotective dad who'd make any suitor turned wide-eyed. Yes, he's good at playing the role with the straightest of faces. We know that because he's done it to great effect in “Meet the Parents.” Many times.

And yet “About My Father” brings out this revered Oscar-winner for a sloppy reprise of that role in a consistently unfunny rom-com that you get the distinct feeling might not be in theaters at all if he didn't lend his deadpan glower.

Comedian Sebastian Maniscalco has co-written and stars in this big sloppy Italian American kiss about family that not only leans into stereotypes — working-class Italians on one side, WASPs on the other — but plows the field with them.

Maniscalco plays a Chicago hotel manager in love with a country club-raised artist (played by the always-smiling Leslie Bibb) who both have a lesson to learn about the push and pull of blood. “The family is not just one thing. It’s everything,” is the motto the Maniscalco clan live by. It would have been a powerful message in 1972.

Maniscalco’s early life was built on thrift thanks to his father, Salvo, played by De Niro, a man who came to Chicago from Sicily for a better life and brought with him a savage work ethic and a chip on his shoulder about wealth. He didn't buy his son a skateboard for Christmas, he made a janky one. Why does he love the Fourth of July? “It's the only holiday you don't have to buy a gift.”

On the other side is the Collins clan, who came to America on the Mayflower. Mom (Kim Cattrall) is a U.S. senator and dad (David Rasche) is CEO of a luxurious hotel group. They live in a gated compound in Maryland with peacocks wandering around. “You should see the house in Aspen,” mom says.

The plot turns on a July 4th holiday meeting when the Maniscalco father and son visit the girlfriend's family to suss each other out. Will Salvo be too nice? Is he not trying enough? Could he be trying to sabotage his son's happiness? Is his son pretending to be someone's he's not? Can all this be solved with some pasta and parmesan? Marone!

The clash of cultures is immediately strong, mostly mocking the kombucha-drinking, monogrammed pajamas-wearing and tennis-playing WASPs. (There's also a Grandma Moses art joke for those still awake. Grandma Moses jokes slay.) The Maniscalcos have their own quirks, like spritzing cologne at every moment. The filmmakers — Laura Terruso directs from a script by Maniscalco and Austen Earl — have the meatballs to frame all this as an immigrant story.

For those who miss “Meet the Parents,” there's even a scene virtually lifted, as if counting on viewers being dim. The pool volleyball scene from the 2000 movie — where Ben Stiller gets too competitive and painfully spikes on his girlfriend's sister — has its equivalent when Maniscalco hits a tennis ball hard into his girlfriend's brother's torso.

“About My Father” isn't the only comedy vying to be the “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner” of 2023. The year started with Netflix’s “You People,” starring Jonah Hill and Eddie Murphy, and that movie, however flawed, dealt with race. “About My Father,” is about white people, and should be about class or privilege, but it's not. It's about embarrassment, denuding any potential depth.

Things sag and then get weird at the end, as this rom-com turns into a rom-com where the target is dad. There's even a running-to-the-airport scene when the penny drops for Salvo's son. But you'll have figured out that this was a cash grab long before that.

“About My Father,” a Lionsgate release, is rated PG-13 for “for suggestive material, language and partial nudity.” Running time: 89 minutes. Half a star out of four.

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