Directed by and starring Ray Romano in his directorial debut, Somewhere in Queens is a decent comfort-zone family comedy.
Sure, the title of the star’s heavily-syndicated series, Everybody Loves Raymond, may have been ironic, but there’s no denying the affable charm of the raspy, nasally, fatherly comedian. As an actor, Ray Romano has established himself as an assuring, agreeable presence in a variety of projects, on screens both big and small. And as he continues to make the shift from regular TV fixture to established film character actor, namely with accomplished turns in The Irishman, The Big Sick, Paddleton, and Bad Education, to only name a select few, the New York City-based comedian has found a way to continue challenging himself artistically while also maintaining his everyman appeal.
That tradition continues with Somewhere in Queens, Romano’s directorial debut, as well as his first feature screenplay (which he co-wrote with Mark Stegemann). The result might very well be the most appealingly adequate film you’ll see all year, and I mean that with the most affectionate praise possible.
Romano also headlines the film as Leo Russo, a world-weary, down-on-his-luck middle-aged schlub who lives to see his anxious, mild-mannered teenage son, Matthew (Jacob Ward), i.e. “Sticks,” excel on the basketball court. Working thanklessly in construction under his tough-love father, Pops (Tony Lo Bianco), and his patronizing younger brother, Frank (Sebastian Maniscalco), and in a decades-spanning marriage with Angela (Laurie Metcalf, fantastic as you would expect) — which is not loveless so much but more lacking in luster — Leo doesn’t have a whole lot to look forward to these days. He’s a nobody at work, and he’s not a superstar at home. But when he goes to his son’s games, which he attends so religiously that he is something of a (very) minor celebrity there, he feels on top of the world. Especially as his son continues to prove himself a real wiz on the court.
“I’m trying to save him from a lifetime of humiliation.”
With the season and school coming to a close, Sticks — who doesn’t have high prospects for himself, much like his old man — is expected to finish his basketball tenure and public education and then move into the family business in lieu of higher education. But when a talent scout named Ben Parson (P.J. Bryne) recognizes Sticks’ undervalued potential, an unexpected future for this working-class son reveals itself. Things are looking bright for the kid, particularly thanks to Dani (Sadie Stanley), a bright-eyed, free-spirited young woman who becomes Sticks’ first brush in the inexplicable ways of love.
That is, until Dani starts to question whether she wants a future with Sticks. Being the type of kid who doesn’t take rejection easily, Leo’s son ends up in a rut, and he knows that he won’t excel on the court unless Dani is by his side. So the father makes an odd plea with the once-carefree teenage girl: stay with his son, at least until tryouts are over, then break his heart for good when he’s accepted with a scholarship. Once he’s on his way to the big leagues, this break-up won’t devastate him nearly as much, and he’ll have a shot at a future that no Russo has had before.
The template for Somewhere in Queens doesn’t stray far from what viewers would expect from a 22-minute episode of Romano’s better-than-you’d-expect show. Certainly, the premise has the hallmarks of Ray Barone’s well-meaning but befuddling antics.
Practical, pragmatic storytelling.
There’s an undeniable “TV quality” to Romano’s first feature. Not exactly in terms of presentation and tone, but rather in its comfortably ample, low-stakes appeal. The movie’s harsher critics might bemoan it, but where Romano ultimately excels behind the camera is in finding the nuances between those sitcom beats and their denser, harsher real-life implications.
It might be familiar, but in a likable, heartfelt, comfortable way. Romano lets the characters feel honest and sincere, allowing us to be immersed in their grounded world and generally-believable problems. Where many comedians-turned-filmmakers fumble at finding the balance between comedy and pathos, Romano’s charming capability to let the comedy be found in the drama and vice versa showcases a first-time filmmaker with an unexpected knack for practical, pragmatic storytelling.
Romano has long insisted on pushing himself creatively and commercially, and that also extends to his lead performance. Leo is an undeniable Romano character, but he’s also a bit pricklier and more complicated than the guy who appeared on broadcast television for several years. All of his decisions are often in the interest of helping his son, but they’re also self-motivated. He’s a man who feels a desperate need for appreciation and recognition. It’s an understandable character, but that doesn’t always make him right or even pleasant to watch at times.
There’s something undeniably admirable about Romano’s ability to tell a humanistic, heartfelt story that’s as snug and soothing to watch as it is willing to make viewers feel at unease and not always jive with the actions of its down-to-earth protagonists. It’s a balance that certainly doesn’t come easily, yet it feels almost second-nature for Romano. Should the debuting director pursue filmmaking further, it will be fascinating to see if he’ll continue down this path and continue to challenge himself. As for Somewhere in Queens, though, it fits right at home.
Somewhere in Queens is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions
SOMEWHERE IN QUEENS - 6/10