My Uncle Rafael: An Armenian Take on the Magical Negro

09/19/2012 4:00 AM |

My Uncle Rafael
Directed by Marc Fusco

L.A. is home to more Armenians than almost anyplace else in the diaspora, so it was inevitable that we’d get a movie about Armenians in Glendale. Too bad it had to be this aggressively bland bit of pablum, which plays like a faux-funny sitcom. Slathered in clumsy layers of makeup, cowriter/coproducer Vahik Pirhamzei plays the title character, an Armenian variation on the Magical Negro. With his perpetually downturned mouth, jutting jaw, and dense salt-and-pepper eyebrows—not to mention his addiction to offering pithy advice and drinking Turkish (sorry, Grandma; I should have said Armenian) coffee—Rafael Sarkissian is a caricature in the Tyler Perry mode. Like the movie itself, he’s an expression of clumsily exaggerated ethnic pride drawn broadly enough to appeal to anyone who likes didactic, “heartwarming” comedy.

A desperate reality show producer, Michele (Rachel Blanchard, unconvincing), falls in love with Uncle Rafael’s earthy wisdom—or wise earthiness, or whatever—when she sees him helping out at a café owned by his slick son Hamo (also played by Pirhamzei). After a little pleading and prodding, Rafael agrees to move in with the dysfunctional all-American family Michele is filming—though he swears he’ll stay just long enough to solve all their problems. That takes about a week, at the rate of approximately one sullen family member per day, after which Rafael hugs everyone and lumbers off to watch a thank-you video from the family in which one of them says: “You’re taught us how to appreciate the important things: each other.”

The closest thing to style or wit are the wordless little scenes that occasionally play out beneath the periodic voiceover, offering an unexpected, if not quite funny, take on the story we are being told. Otherwise, like a pet bunny that got out of its cage, the script leaves little turds of ethnic stereotyping everywhere, like the tough Latino dude who drives up to Hamo’s café and proves how much everybody loves Uncle Rafael by greeting him with “Que paso, homes? What up, ese?” Lupe Ontiveros manages to maintain her dignity in a thankless (and unlisted on IMDB—could she have had her name taken off the credits?) role as Uncle Rafael’s ESL teacher, but the rest of the performances are either instantly forgettable or so over-the-top you wish you could forget them instantly.

Opens September 21