THE STORY – Leo and Angela Russo live a blue-collar life, surrounded by the big personalities of their overbearing Italian-American family. When their son’s chance at a life-changing basketball scholarship is jeopardized, Leo risks everything to help him, but may tear the family apart trying to make it happen.
THE CAST – Ray Romano, Laurie Metcalf, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jacob Ward & Sadie Stanley
THE TEAM – Ray Romano (Director/Writer) & Mark Stegemann (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 103 Minutes
Ray Romano’s feature directorial debut, “Somewhere in Queens,” is firmly in his comfort zone. For those who loved the comedic actor’s brand of “grounded absurdity” from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” you’ll be treated to more of the same, just longer. “Somewhere In Queens” is a pretty standard indie comedy. It’s likable enough, but it is entirely lacking any sort of visual flare or innovative storytelling. Still, it incorporates just enough nuance, spirit, and memorably uncomfortable scenarios that it tends not to be totally forgettable.
Queens, New York native Leo (Ray Romano) is a walking midlife crisis. He never went to college. He is unhappy in his construction job, where he works for his father and brothers, none of whom respect him. His relationship with his wife, Angela (Laurie Metcalf), has lost its spark. However, when his introverted but athletic teenage son (Jacob Ward) gets spotted by a basketball scout, suddenly college scholarships are on the table. Leo sees the possibility of a better life for both himself and his son and decides he will stop at nothing to ensure his son lands the basketball scholarship, even if it means jeopardizing his career and family relationships in the process.
If that description sounds generic, that’s because it is. There are too many movies to count that have featured similar concepts. As a result, Romano as a director, doesn’t bring anything unique to elevate the story beyond its familiar trappings. The scenes are staged and shot like sitcoms. It’s all basic shot-reverse shot coverage where there clearly wasn’t much thought put into the coverage other than ensuring the camera captures a reaction from each cast member, along with basic wide shots. Then there is a sloppy b-roll of New York and Philadelphia, captured through handheld work shot out of a car window. And the film’s acoustic guitar score is excruciatingly generic.
Now, with all that out of the way considering this is a first-time feature, if Romano, the director, fails to impress, Romano, the actor, and Romano, the writer, bring something notable to the table. For a concept that sounds as uninteresting and generic as “Somewhere in Queens” does, Romano’s brand of comedy and humanism goes a long way to making the film something more. There’s an authenticity in a film that attempts to be a grounded dramedy that feels quirky but earned, making it much more watchable and engaging.
Leo consistently behaves in a way that makes the audience cringe with secondhand embarrassment. He usually means well but makes decisions that range from unwise to actively deranged. In fact, some of his choices are so absurd that they take you out of the film. Some of those decisions to protect his son’s future feel like something that no human being, even the good-natured but dumb Leo, would ever do. Still, providing a character with such flaws makes the film less predictable and entertaining to watch. Watching Leo is like watching a train wreck in slow motion as he approaches levels of poor judgment, similar to Adam Sandler’s character in “Uncut Gems.” And because eventually, Leo has to face the consequences for his deranged actions, waiting for his chickens to come home to roost ends up lacing the film with this consistent sense of almost Hitchcockian, “bomb under the table, but the characters don’t know it,” anxiety. While the film’s concept is bland, it has a madman wandering around in the form of Ray Romano’s Leo. He may not be the most “grounded” character, but he is someone you can’t look away from simply because you have to know what spectacularly unwise choice he will make next and how his character will suffer for it.
There’s also a darkness underlying everything that makes the film more interesting than your average good-natured father-son, midlife crisis indie flick. While Leo’s determination to help his son succeed is meant to be endearing, the film acknowledges that, in many ways, that determination is unhealthy. Indeed, the lengths Leo goes to are excessive. We see just how dysfunctional his life and family are in one of the most-aggressively Italian American films ever made. Many big Italian meal scenes with squabbling aunts and uncles over meatballs function as some of the film’s highlights. Even with the sitcom-y trappings of how the film explores Leo’s family, it also provides some raw reality– the kind of damaged relationships that can’t ever really be fixed. These aspects make the film more interesting and provide it with more bite. It’s a shame that the film must resolve everything easily by the end. Some of the story’s resolutions (such as those involving Leo’s relationship with his father and brother) feel unearned and rushed to provide a conventional feel-good ending.
Both critics and Romano were critical of his acting in earlier seasons of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” But as shown in “The Irishman,” “The Big Sick,” “Paddleton,” and now here, he has grown immensely as an actor. The only reason the Leo character works is that Romano manages to ground him in reality to an extent and make someone as flawed and often selfish as Leo likable and relatable. Romano may be no Daniel Day-Lewis here, but he mostly lands his dramatic beats, making some of Leo’s most insane choices feel less ridiculous than they come across on the page.
Matching Romano, Laurie Metcalf shows the same dramatic side we saw her demonstrate in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.” As Leo’s long-suffering wife, unsure how to deal with the trauma of having recently recovered from cancer, she gets a few big moments that she sells well. In the quieter moments, she effectively showcases this weary sadness in her eyes. And she’s as funny as ever, of course!
Everyone in the supporting cast is funny and plays their parts as needed. The dialogue is unquestionably Romano’s, though. On some level, every character sounds a little bit like the Ray Romano we all know and love. That probably isn’t surprising for fans of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but without a writers room to balance it out, it is especially noticeable here.
Some great individual scenes are to be found in “Somewhere In Queens.” And everything in between is likable enough. Romano has a unique voice as a writer in fleshing out his characters, even if his inexperience as a director shows. The characters may not always be believable, and that’s a problem when a film wants to be something more than an outright absurdist comedy. Still, in a film that otherwise would be beyond forgettable, some of that deranged absurdity makes for a happy, neurotic accident that ends up being pretty watchable.