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Play the heart's strings

After 'Uncle Nino' moves in, family life takes a positive turn. It's a predictable story but enchants nevertheless.

February 11, 2005|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Writer-director Robert Shallcross' "Uncle Nino" is a solid family film that strikes a shrewd balance between tough-mindedness and sentimentality and boasts a fine cast, including Joe Mantegna, Anne Archer and, in the title role, character actor Pierrino Mascarino. It's the kind of wholesome fare that wins prizes in regional festivals but may well end up finding a larger audience on the tube than in theaters.

Uncle Nino is a hearty Italian peasant in his 70s who descends upon his nephew Robert (Mantegna) for an extended stay. Nino last saw Robert as a small child, who left Italy for America with his parents, and it would seem that Nino's timing couldn't be worse -- but then again, maybe not. The Micellis of Glenview, Ill., a Chicago suburb of very similar outsized, nouveau riche period-style homes, are an All-American dysfunctional family.

Robert is a workaholic exploited ruthlessly by his stern boss, who dangles before him a promotion that Robert's understanding but lonely wife, Marie (Archer), fears will eat up what precious little time he has left for his family. Robert has bought the upscale new residence without any thought as to whether he and his family really need it or what effect the move will have on his family, especially his 14-year-old son, Bobby (Trevor Morgan), struggling to fit into a new school and caught up in his garage band. Robert sees only Bobby's failing grades and annoying behavior, and when it comes to the music so important to Bobby, hears only loud noise.

Twelve-year-old daughter Gina (Gina Mantegna, Joe's daughter, in her film debut) longs for a dog, but Robert regards this as just another pain in the neck and refuses to let her have the pet. Marie, who works at a boutique, yearns for what seems impossible: to get her family to sit down together for dinner -- or any other meal.

At first, Uncle Nino looks to be a simple, naive guy from the Old Country, and his backfiring well-meaning ways only add to the miseries. Luckily, Nino is not entirely as sweetly folksy as he seems. He does ultimately have an effect on his relatives, and, like every other worthy development that surfaces in the film, it's well earned.

"Uncle Nino" is a serious comedy, its humor alternately -- sometimes simultaneously -- dark and light, setting off sitcom-style shenanigans with considerable probing of emotional depth and raising important questions of values and priorities. As an example of filmmaking, "Uncle Nino" is strictly straightforward and utterly conventional yet has been made with the kind of caring and commitment that will connect with many viewers, especially those who eventually will be watching it in their homes.


'Uncle Nino'

MPAA rating: PG for language and some teen smoking

Times guidelines: Suitable for all ages; teen smoking is depicted only to be condemned.

Joe Mantegna...Robert Micelli

Anne Archer...Marie Micelli

Pierrino Mascarino...Uncle Nino

Trevor Morgan...Bobby Micelli

Gina Mantegna...Gina Micelli

A Lange Film release of a Kick the Can Productions presentation. Writer-director Robert Shallcross. Producer David James. Executive producer Barney Visser. Cinematographer Hugo Cortina. Editor Dan Schalk. Music Larry Pecorella. Costumes Ginger Cavalier. Production designers Martha Ring, Antonetta Megna. Set decorator Desi Wolff. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

In general release.

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