Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Uncle Rafael: From Armenia with Faith

Vahik Pirhamzei wants to be the Armenian-American Tyler Perry.  Well, we’ll see.  At least he’s not giving us any “Big, Fat, Armenian” this or that’s.  After creating his signature persona in several stage plays popular with Los Angeles’ Armenian community, Pirhamzei is making the transition to the big screen.  He and his title character show a lot of faith in Marc Fusco’s My Uncle Rafael (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Rafael Sarkissian’s family emigrated not from Armenia, but from Iran, where they had expatriated in search of work.  For obvious reasons, the Armenian Christians found it advisable to leave after the Islamic Revolution.  Despite his years in America, Uncle Rafael, as everyone knows him, is still getting a handle on English grammar.  However, he is never at a loss for words when someone needs an uncle’s advice.  Uncle Rafael’s wise counsel is so on-point, a prospective television producer recruits him for a mid-season replacement reality show.

Uncle Rafael will have his hands full with the dysfunctional Schumacher family.  Blair Schumacher has yet to finalize her divorce with her loser first husband Jack, but she is already living with her slimy fiancé Damon, a fact that does not sit well with a traditionalist like Uncle Rafael.  However, while the show is taping, everyone has to abide by his rules.  Meanwhile, Uncle Rafael’s slick operator son Hamo is looking for his piece of the producing action.

The Sarkissians operate a coffee shop that looks like a little java jewel, assuming they have wifi.  They also take faith and family seriously, which is refreshing.  However, the comedy is decidedly hit or miss—and the hits are pretty modest.  Pirhamzei never really capitalizes on the opportunity for some Yakov Smirnov-style Iranian humor (“in the Islamic Republic, you don’t watch TV, TV watches you”), which might have lent the film a wider topical interest.  Instead, it is mostly your basic culture clash gags and familial bickering.

While his characterizations are broad, Pirhamzei, in a dual role as both Rafael and Hamo, taps into something genuinely heartfelt.  His big dramatic scene with himself is actually quite well done.  Missi Pyle (the diva upstaged by Uggi and George Valentin in The Artist) also vamps it up nicely as Blair Schumacher.  Mostly though, the supporting cast is performing at a middling sitcom level, commensurate with their material.

My Uncle Rafael is harmless and obviously means well.  Fusco never lets the pace get too pokey and Pirhamzei is a dynamic performer.  It simply is not very consequential film.  Maybe you just have to be Armenian.  For Pirhamzei’s fans, My Uncle Rafael opens this Friday (9/21) in New York at the AMC Empire.