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STARRING: Joe Mantegna, Anne Archer, Trevor Morgan, Gina Mantegna and Pierrino Mascarino

DIRECTOR: Bob Shallcross

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

RATING: PG for langauge and a teen smoker.

THE LOWDOWN: You could detail the plot on a cocktail napkin while waiting for your vino to arrive. Magical peasant teaches alienated American family what's really important.

Uncle Nino, how I wanted to love you!

You with your borrowed wool cap, your vest over that collarless shirt, your fuzzy gray beard, your kind, wise eyes, your miraculously improving English, your chops on the violin, your love for dogs and kids and Abe Lincoln!

And then, when I heard about your inspiring longevity in one Grand Rapids theater, where you have played to packed houses for more than a year, where people returned again and again to see you quietly teach the virtues of gardens and wine and the family (not The Family, the family!) then, Uncle Nino, I wanted to adore you.

If only! If only you had been the slightest bit two-dimensional, if only your sweet sentimentality had not dissolved into a sappy, saccharine syrup!

Lord knows it isn't the actors. Joe Mantegna (of TV's "Joan of Arcadia") plays the workaholic Robert Micelli, striving for a promotion in some high-stress, high-fallutin' corporate job so he can afford a huge, bland house in a sterile suburb. With his overgroomed hair, his sad eyes and his stooped shoulders, he's exactly the kind of stepped-on corporate drone who's ripe for intervention by, in this case, a magical peasant, Uncle Nino himself, played brilliantly by Pierrino Mascarino.

Anne Archer is Micelli's wife, Marie, a neglected, lonely, elegant creature who has managed to develop excellent taste in clothing while still drinking wine from a box and decorating with fake flowers.

Trevor Morgan is son Bobby, a disaffected teenager who runs wild in the mildest of ways, by hanging around with wild-haired guys and joining them in toilet-papering a neighbor's yard.

Daughter Gina, played by Gina Mantegna, the real-life daughter of star Joe Mantegna, really wants a dog (unfortunately, from a pet shop instead of an animal shelter).

And then there's Uncle Nino. He's huggable and profound and spiritual (in a nonspecific, unoffensive way) and so forgiving and loving that sometimes he's surrounded by an aura. He's quirky and quick-witted and so wise. I wish he were my guardian uncle, and you will, too.

The plot, however, is trite, predictable pabulum as Uncle Nino's practical peasantlike ways horrify his nephew's neighbors and co-workers.

Here's an example: The beleaguered Micelli is working on a Saturday, sitting around a big table in a dim room with a bunch of other constipated corporate types. The strain shows clearly on their faces. Suddenly the door bursts open and it's The Uncle Nino Show! (Put aside for a moment the natural question that arises: How did a man who can't even distinguish the international symbol for a men's room from the international symbol for a women's room find his way to his nephew's big-city office?) He romps in with his arms full of delicious-looking bread, salami, probably some homegrown peppers and tomatoes and some home-stomped and -fermented wine, shouting something like "Mangia! Mangia!" Micelli is nearly immobile with mortification, and his uptight co-workers recoil in horror. The worst of the rude, repressed bunch actually barks, "Call security!"

I can tell you from personal experience that anybody who turns up at a workplace after hours or on a weekend with food for the miserable wage-slaves would be welcomed with open arms, not shouts of "Call security!" But Uncle Nino's writers didn't trust the audience to understand subtlety or nuance.

Anyone over the age of 9 will see the plot twists, such as they are, coming a mile away. They don't just telegraph -- they write, they call, they e-mail, they IM, they send text messages.

Uncle Nino, you deserved better. And so did we.


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