Uncle Nino

The bane of movie critics — the very bane, I tell you! — is these little family-friendly movies that were clearly meant for direct-to-video distribution but that wound up in theaters instead, perhaps due to a clerical error. These films are seldom awful. They usually fall under the “harmless but useless” classification instead — which is actually worse, from a critic’s standpoint. I mean, I have no problem eviscerating a terrible movie, family-friendly or otherwise. But a friendly little film that never hurt anyone but that lacks artistic merit, wit, or originality? I rip on this thing, and I seem like a jerk.

Well, I’m a jerk, then. That’s fine; I’ve been called worse. “Uncle Nino” isn’t a bad movie, just a pointless one. It does nothing that hasn’t been done (and better) in countless other films. There is no reason to watch it. And yet, it wouldn’t HURT to watch it, either. It’s not aggravating or stupid. It’s just this sweet, amorphous lump of a movie.

In fact, the movie itself reminds me of its title character: mildly obtrusive, brimming with kindly old wisdom, and quick to wear out its welcome. Uncle Nino (Pierrino Mascarino) is an extremely old Italian man who leaves his village and heads for suburban Chicago to visit his nephew’s family. The reason for his visit remains a secret from us for a while, but his purpose as far as the movie is concerned quickly becomes apparent: He’s there to fix everything.

The nephew, Robert Micelli (Joe Mantegna), has a vague, high-pressure job with a vague, multi-million-dollar company, and is prone to neglecting his family because of work. His wife, Marie (Anne Archer), misses him and wishes he were home more often. Their teenage son Bobby (Trevor Morgan) hangs out with a tough crowd — well, OK, one of them smokes and they all like to toilet-paper the neighbor’s house sometimes; I guess that’s “tough” — and is about to compete in his school’s battle-of-the-bands competition, AND has a crush on a girl. Bobby’s little sister Gina (Gina Mantegna) wants a dog.

And wouldn’t you know it, Uncle Nino, in his gentle way, with his broken English and his apologetic smile, he helps Robert learn what’s really important in life, makes Marie feel good about herself, plays a mean rock ‘n’ roll violin for Bobby’s band, gives him tips on getting a girl to notice him, and buys Gina a dog. He even gets that toilet-papering friend to quit smoking. The man is a miracle worker!

The problem is that while I have just revealed the entire plot, I haven’t actually spoiled anything. Events occur exactly as you would expect them to, with nary a twist, complication or surprise. At any given moment, you could stop the film, write the next five pages of screenplay, and probably not be very far off from what writer/director Robert Shallcross came up with.

But again, I must stress, it’s not a BAD movie. Pierrino Mascarino’s performance as Nino, as much as I’d like to hate it, is actually rather charming in its way, and the film has a few nice, genuine moments. It means well, darn it, and if it fails to entertain, at least it fails to annoy, too.

C (1 hr., 40 min.; PG, a little mild vulgarity.)