The first of two striking things about My Uncle Rafael is that it’s lit and edited very amateurishly, like a student film, with the kind of rhythm that makes it obvious that its makers had some idea of how they wanted things to look — bubbly, bright, self-mocking, not too important — but next to no idea of how to get the movie there. It’s an overpowerlingly obvious comedy, yet every time something like a comedic rhythm starts to emerge, director David Fusco, much like a student filmmaker, either cuts too soon or pans awkwardly away from the action, as if he was too nervous about missing a beat or a joke to let the script (which is standard TV-movie stuff intended to seem like a play on standard TV-movie stuff) speak for itself.
The movie follows the titular uncle (Vahik Piramzei), an Armenian septuagenarian working as a barista at his son’s Los Angeles coffee shop, as he is goaded into starring in a hastily thrown-together reality TV show about a dysfunctional family. In the show, a pair of divorced parents, the ex-wife’s slimy new husband, a goth-rebel daughter, and a sarcastic moppet son have the old Armenian foisted on them in hopes that he’ll bind them together with his no-nonsense, old-world take on life. Any more plot synopsis would be about as superfluous as 95 percent of the movie’s scenes, so instead here’s a bit of dialogue lifted from one of the more tender moments:
Little moppet son (to Uncle Rafael as he tries to wash the rascal’s mouth out with soap for swearing at his mother): You’re wasting water.
Uncle Rafael: So?
Little moppet son: Al Gore could have you arrested.
Uncle Rafael: Oh really? Jay-Z could have Al Gore arrested for having no rhythm.
This kind of dialogue, which is slathered across the movie, is the other striking thing about the film. Exchanges like this are across the board the type of comedy that My Uncle Rafael is built on: dated references that made for easy jokes when they were (at least) relevant, but that seem nothing less than pathetic today. Who gives a shit about Al Gore’s supposed stiffness anymore? Did anyone ever think it was hilarious to hear an old foreign man “surprise” us with his knowledge of rap? The movie is supposed to be a light comedy about an Armenian stereotype bringing good old common sense to some jaded, materialistic Los Angelinos, but the best it can do is expose the character as an out-of-date topical referencer and shameless mugger. The fumbled attempt, by Fusco, to shoot and edit everything loosely (Arrested Development-style, with lots of improv-ing and handheld cameras) certainly doesn’t help cover for any of the shamelessness. Perhaps the really striking thing is that this movie got made and released at all. What exactly made some executive at some small distribution company (Rocky Mountain Pictures, which, tellingly, also released the recent neo-con doc 2016: Obama’s America) decide to sink money into a film like this? Some misguided belief in America’s readiness for another Borat-esque, mock-Eastern European cultural craze? Simple lack of imagination?
My Uncle Rafael is that particularly sad type of independent film that is only independent because its makers are too inept to make the money they really want to be making by selling out. So instead they make a low-budget version of the garbage they’d gladly make at a high-budget if they had the luck, talent, or wherewithal. When a low-budget film can do nothing but imitate high-budget crap, what you wind up with is simply, comically, unwatchable.