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Ray Romano's "Somewhere in Queens" is an unusual film set in the real world, about a father who is so obsessed with seeing his hoop star son go to college on a basketball scholarship that he screws up at work, sleepwalks through his own midlife crisis, and alienates his family. There's a type of viewer who reads that sort of description and thinks, "That sounds like a very unpleasant experience," and another who reads it and says, "Meh," and a third that says, "My kind of movie." Unfortunately, it's difficult to imagine a person who identifies with any of those groups wholeheartedly embracing "Somewhere in Queens" because of how it misunderstands its own strengths and underestimates the audience's willingness to go into unexpected places if a famous actor like Ray Romano is there to hold their hands.
Romano, who co-wrote the script with Mark Stegemann, stars as Leo Russo. Leo is a fiftysomething Queens husband and father who works at a family-owned home construction firm founded by his dad (Tony LoBianco, one of many can't-miss East Coast character actors in the film's stacked cast). He and his wife Angela (Laurie Metcalf) are proud of their son "Sticks" (Jacob Ward) because he's a high school basketball star who seems to be on track to get a college athletic scholarship. Even Sticks’ dad seems to know he's not enough of a wizard on the court to go to the NBA. But going to college on a basketball scholarship is a fantasy for many people that's rarely achieved, and Leo seems to want it even more than Sticks.
Therein lies disaster, not just for the family but the film. Sticks introduces his parents to his girlfriend Dani (Sadie Stanley), who he's been dating secretly for weeks, and who will break up with him soon, to preempt the inevitable long-slow-Cold War breakup that she knows will follow when they go off to separate colleges. Sticks goes into a tailspin that jeopardizes his basketball prospects, and Leo responds by ... contriving to convince Dani to get back to together with him to help him get a scholarship.
Not only is this plot pivot gross and weird, but the movie also doesn't seem to fully recognize the grossness and weirdness. And as it pursues this storyline, turning the movie into something like a supersized, gritty "Everybody Loves Raymond" episode, with Romano channeling similar dim-bulb sad sack energy, it never fully awakens to the disaster it is inflicting on itself. There's an alternate universe where the film sunk its teeth into Leo's psychology and morphed into a great cringe comedy about an obsessed schmuck, like something Albert Brooks or Ben Stiller might have once starred in. But that's not the universe we live in. In this one, Leo's midlife crisis plays out in scenes of him disappointing his dad and brother (who are also his coworkers), repeatedly bargaining with Dani to help with his scheme (reducing the request to her just making Sticks think there's a chance at reunion) and seeming to go to the brink of cheating on his wife with a lonely, flirty woman at one of the family construction sites.
While we're watching Leo dog-paddle through a manure pit he filled up all by himself, there's a much more interesting and fresh story happening in the background about a modestly talented high school basketball player who discovers, while suffering and flailing through his first serious relationship, that he enjoys cathartically writing about what he's going through, and has a particular knack for poetry. To its credit, the film does see that there's a good story in a couple of decent kids who aren't fated to be together and the role that the crisis plays in convincing one of the kids to take a long look at himself, and ask whether what he really wants from life is to live his father's fantasy. But it’s too little, too late.
There's nothing outwardly remarkable about this movie, but it starts to seem incredibly weird when you think about the plot and how drastically the tone of the midsection clashes with what precedes and follows it. Romano is potentially a very good director of lifelike real-world comedy and drama. The film starts as a life-sized East Coast ethnic family story with a hard edge and a lot of heart, one that pitches its audience net as broadly as possible without being untrue to the characters. You get a pretty good handle on who they are very early in the story, and after that, you're on the lookout for situations that could bring out the worst in each of them, just as you might with members of your own family.
Romano doesn't seem to have put much thought into what shots mean, together or combined with other shots, which would've made this film a visual and a narrative experience. But he has a natural rapport with actors, plus good taste; he seems to know how to push on performers to push their limits but not too far. The characters are big, but the performances don't over-inflate them. Romano also seems to have a veteran stage and sitcom comedian's instinct to time a joke or an awkward moment so that it doesn't so much happen as pop, like a party snap firecracker. The family dinners, especially, have a core of instability that's exciting and unpleasant in a real way. You never know when somebody will needle somebody else a bit too hard, causing the other person to launch into a profane tirade that has the elder generation covering their ears and crossing themselves.
There's a good movie in Romano the feature filmmaker, but this isn't it. He misunderstands the specialness of his own film just as Leo misunderstands the specialness of Sticks.
Now playing in theaters.
Ray Romano as Leo Russo
Laurie Metcalf as Angela Russo
Jacob Ward as Sticks Russo
Sadie Stanley as Dani Brooks