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There’s “staying in your comfort zone,” and then there’s Ray Romano making his directorial debut with a movie in which he plays a beleaguered outer-borough New York father who tries to look on the bright side of life and survive the slings and arrows that bond his large Italian-American family together even as they threaten to tear it apart. On paper, the leap from “Jackass” the TV show to “Jackass: The Movie” might have been a greater creative gamble than the one from “Everybody Loves Raymond” to “Somewhere in Queens,” which essentially finds its everyman superstar at the center of a 106-minute sitcom.
And yet, the film’s length isn’t the only reason why “Somewhere in Queens” avoids the stale whiff of syndication. Liberated from the bumper lanes that are built into the sitcom format — from the oppressiveness of canned laughter, throwaway B-plots, and the steady drumbeat of commercial breaks — Romano’s latest semi-autobiographical charmer is free to tell a more nuanced story within his favorite milieu, and it often does so with enough grace and sensitivity to suggest that
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Of course, “the big screen” isn’t necessarily synonymous with “the movies” these days, and nothing about Romano’s middle-brow portrait of middle-class people suggests that “Somewhere in Queens” has the potential zeitgeist (or awards) appeal to earn a theatrical run in the current landscape. And that’s just fine, as the rewards of this modest and patient little character study — which has, not inaccurately, been labeled a “crowd-pleasing dramedy” — might be that much easier to appreciate in a streaming market where most of the other content is so insufferably desperate for your attention.
The only aspect of “Somewhere in Queens” that’s desperate for attention — anyone’s attention — is its main character. Not that you’d know it at a glance. The first time we meet Leo Russo (Romano), he’s white-knuckling his way through the latest in an endless parade of Russo family weddings. While everyone else is boisterously jawing at each other in between massive slices of cake, Leo is begging the videographer to cut him out of the tape. He’s clearly the shiest and most sensitive of the Russo men (a fact Romano underlines by casting Sebastian Maniscalco as Leo’s sad alpha of a younger brother, and the blustery Tony LoBianco as the father who’s always treated his oldest son like the Fredo Corleone of the family’s small construction business), although his teenage son “Sticks” will probably assume that distinction for himself the day he graduates from high school.
A reedy wallflower of a kid who the more traditional Russo men have already written off as a disappointment, Sticks (Jacob Ward) got his nickname on account of his height, which he puts to good use as the star of his Glendale high school’s thoroughly mediocre basketball team. Leo doesn’t really care if they win or lose, but he definitely seems to enjoy the spotlight that he gets to share with his son at the games. It’s the only time where either of them reliably feel seen.
If Sticks is still young enough to attract different kinds of attention — as is evidenced by his bright-eyed new girlfriend, Dani (Sadie Stanley), the Jennifer Lawrence of Forest Hills — Leo is holding onto this one for dear life. After all, his own wife (Laurie Metcalf, bringing Shakespearian fire to a character that could’ve been a sitcom archetype) won’t even touch him since her breast cancer went into remission. So when a scout offers Sticks a long-shot tryout for a basketball scholarship at Drexel, Leo makes it his personal mission to make sure his son wins the open spot and keeps playing ball. And that mission gets mighty personal indeed, especially after Dani breaks Sticks’ heart just a few days before the big audition, and Leo finds himself begging this sweet teenage girl to put it back together.
Unsurprisingly — and in a way befitting the screenwriters’ sitcom roots — the plotting of Romano and Mark Stegemann’s script is a whole lot sweatier than Sticks ever seems to get on the court. If “Somewhere in Queens” rings true in spite of those contrivances, that’s because of how sensitively the film is attuned to what scares its characters (some of whom have always been scared of life, itself). Leo is petrified of losing the one person who makes him feel special, his abrasive wife is terrified that lowering her guard or acknowledging her body might invite the cancer to come back, his brother is paranoid that dropping his asshole shtick will leave him with nothing, and Sticks… well, Sticks is an introverted virgin who’s so scared of other people that he apparently won’t even go to a barber to fix the tragic hair situation he’s been sporting since he was six (I’m assuming), but also shows occasional flashes of fearlessness that should make any father proud.
The psychology here may not be particularly complex, but “Somewhere in Queens” handles it with a soft touch that keeps its story humming along at a natural volume. The dialogue is sharp without straining for laughs, the (many) dinner/party scenes manufacture a lived-in sense of familial love from the film’s terrific ensemble cast, and the use of Jennifer Esposito as Chekhov’s MILF turns out to be far more tactful than you expect it to be for most of the movie. After “The Big Sick,” it’s not really a surprise that Romano can tap into a rich vein of relatable self-loathing at a moment’s notice, but his smartly composed debut feature — never flashy, but always thoughtful — makes the best of its material because of the love he has for his characters. His faith in them reflects their faith in each other, both of which prove essential to a film that’s at its funniest whenever it feels real.
Charming as Romano’s directorial modesty and let’s not fuck this up approach can be, however, “Somewhere in Queens” also shares its characters’ fears where a more confident film might leverage them into courage. Several of the story choices down the home stretch reflect a risk-averse unwillingness to get messy, while Sticks’ — throughout the movie — is such a flat, clinical-grade introvert that you almost can’t blame Leo for projecting all of his hopes to the kid. There’s a fine line between shy and simple, and “Somewhere in Queens” doesn’t always seem to know where it is.
The mismatch between Dani’s radiance and Sticks’ naiveté is deliberate and supported by the plot — and yes, this is a movie about a man learning to see his son as more than a very tall extension of himself — but Romano is a stronger storyteller than he gives himself credit for, to the point that I wished he would’ve challenged himself to make Sticks a more dynamic person. It’s a fundamental aspect of this film, and the one lane where “Somewhere in Queens” still bowls with the bumper lanes up. If Romano decides to direct another film — and he should — here’s hoping that he shoots it like he isn’t afraid of missing the mark, because in all likelihood he probably won’t.
“Somewhere in Queens” premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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