Recalling both Big Mamma’s House and the far more self-serious, though at times equally funny, Madea’s Big Happy Family, My Uncle Rafael is based on Armenian star Vahik Pirhamzei’s stage comedy of the same name and features the actor doing double duty as 71-year-old Uncle Rafael and his son and opportunistic “manager,” Hamo. The story concerns a TV exec (Rachel Blanchard) who’s desperate to spice up a middling reality show about a man, Jack (Anthony Clark), trying to get back together with his estranged wife, Blair (Missi Pyle), despite the fact that she’s moved on to the far less depressed, far better looking, far wealthier, and far, far skeevier Damon (John Michael Higgins). He’s also trying to win back the affections of his bratty kids. When the exec hits on the novel idea of having Rafael move in with Jack and his family and let the outsider solve everyone’s problems, cultures predictably clash.
It’s all too simplistic, but there’s something about watching this inept, callow, bourgeois family getting slapped, scolded, and generally schooled by their new, platitude-spewing Armenian “uncle” that’s perversely entertaining. The American characters are clichéd and vapid, and seeing them get knocked around and told to wake up can be validating if you know people as obnoxious and spoiled as them. However, what’s troubling—in addition to the cartoonish characters, such as Damon and Jack and Blair’s “rebellious” teenage daughter, Kim (Carly Chaikin)—is the whiff of inverse racism derived from the fetishizing of the other. There are plenty of American films in which a person of color, knowing and wise due to their more “authentic” experiences and history, is called on to help a white person solve their mundane problems, and My Uncle Rafael is no exception. And yet, some of film’s set pieces, such as Rafael and Damon playing a very strange version of billiards that involves a copious amount of vodka, are amusing, hinging strongly on Pirhamzei’s committed performance. With his unusual lilting speech patterns and jaded know-it-all perspective, he’s able to cast a cynical, bemused eye at the obnoxious family he’s been thrust into, and TV fans will easily jump on board with that attitude. It may be fun to watch reality TV families, but it must seriously suck to live with one of them.