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Uncle Nino is not only an example of the rare species, “the family movie that doesn’t suck”; it is a member of that rarest subset, “the family movie that is poignant and entertaining for all the various age groups of the family.” It is (unfortunately) also an example of that not-so-rare phenomenon, “the great little independent film that is crapped upon by the cold uncaring film distribution system.”

A labor of love of writer/director Robert Shallcross, Uncle Nino was actually shot in 2003 and wandered in the wilderness of studio indifference for several years unable to find a distributor. This despite a great reception at film festivals and a huge grassroots cult following (it sold out a theater in Grand Rapids, Michigan for an entire year). After much work by those associated with the film, it received a halfhearted limited release in 2004/2005 (again garnering a rave response). More corporate lethargy ensued before the film was finally released on DVD in June of 2009. Hopefully now Uncle Nino will finally get its due from a wider audience.

Joe Mantegna plays Robert Micelli, an overworked ad exec who has lost touch with his wife and children. In fact, the entire family has lost touch with each other, each living in their own world, unable to communicate except via arguments and screamed conversations from separate rooms. Basically the average suburban American family in the current age.

That autistic pattern is broken when Mantegna’s elderly Uncle Nino (deftly portrayed by Pierrino Mascarino) unexpectedly arrives from Italy. At this point, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Gosh, I bet Uncle Nino’s Old World charm and simple ways cause everyone to reevaluate their lives and the choices they have made; resulting in them all rediscovering the value of family and of a less complicated, not as goal directed life.”

And you’d be right, cynical smart ass; but it’s about the journey, not the destination. And Uncle Nino gets there with style and an easy grace. Whenever the movie threatens to dip into total bathos or hokieness, the actors and director manage to avoid veering off the Cliffs of Schmaltz. It sometimes feels a bit like an After School Special, but a really really good one. Besides, it’s a family movie, not a Tarantino flick; so back off.

Joe Mantegna’s real daughter, Gina (who was 12 at the time), plays his daughter in the movie and does a fabulous job. The two were able to translate both the bond and the angst from their actual relationship, and it gives their scenes a veracity beyond the standard Father/Daughter family film dynamic. Anne Archer, who had worked with Mantegna several times before, has the role as his wife, and their familiarity and comfort with each other adds to the genuine feel of the film.

Making Uncle Nino was truly a family affair for Mantegna; not only did he get to work with his daughter for a summer back in his hometown of Chicago (the Northwest ‘burbs, actually), but he took his whole family with him for an extended reunion with all of his relatives, who were scattered in the towns around where the film was shot (Joe and family ended up just crashing with them during down time). In fact, most of the extras in a large crowd scene toward the end of the film are members of the Mantegna clan.

So, to sum up: if you’re having a jones for a sexy high-octane shoot-em-up or a bracing look at the seamy underbelly of suburban America; give Uncle Nino a pass. But if you’re looking for something to pop in the DVD player at a holiday gathering that will keep the little ones and the old folks entertained, yet won’t bore the tweens and young adults (and you) to death; and even might elicit a few tears and hugs all around— Uncle Nino is a fantastic choice.