Ray Romano’s deeply earnest, semiautobiographical dramedy, “Somewhere in Queens,” starts off with such evocative charm that it’s both a surprise and a shame when the story goes sideways at the midpoint — and never quite recovers.
Although Romano may still be most widely known as a creative force behind the hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” and for his beloved turn as the series’ hangdog hero, Ray Barone, he’s proven a solid serious actor in such shows as “Men of a Certain Age,” “Parenthood” and the short-lived, underrated “Vinyl.”
Romano’s part here, as well-intentioned, Queens-dwelling, “Rocky”-quoting schlemiel Leo Russo, is a sort of enjoyably familiar hybrid of his previous roles. And, for much of the time, he brings an affecting and understated warmth to his performance — as well as to his direction. But his script, written with “Men of a Certain Age” collaborator Mark Stegemann, attempts to cover a bit too much emotional and familial terrain and, most problematically, fumbles a pivotal plot point.
Leo is currently up against three significant issues. First, his hard-nosed wife, Angela (a committed Laurie Metcalf), is a cancer survivor whose anger and fear Leo can’t seem to pierce. Then there’s the long-suffering Leo’s underappreciated work in construction, toiling away for his old-school, company-founder father, Dominic (the welcome Tony Lo Bianco), and obnoxious, foreman brother, Frank (Sebastian Maniscalco in a one-note role).
Third and most essential, though, is Leo’s protective relationship with his anxious, painfully introverted 18-year-old son, Matthew, a.k.a. Sticks (Jacob Ward), a high school basketball star nicknamed for his long legs. When Leo, Sticks’ chief supporter and cheerleader, discovers that a basketball scholarship to Philadelphia’s Drexel University is an off-the-radar prospect, he goes into overdrive to help seal the deal, despite Angela’s suspicion of the golden opportunity.
Unfortunately, this gives way to an intrusive move Leo concocts on his son’s behalf that involves Sticks’ bright and forthright new girlfriend, Dani (a luminous Sadie Stanley). What at first feels awkward and desperate becomes something far more uncomfortable as it spins out into wrecking-ball territory and subverts our cozy feelings toward Leo.
Sorry, but there had to have been a less icky and contrived way to create the requisite havoc here.
In addition, the surface-y nature of many of the film’s character dynamics creates its share of questions and voids: Sticks’ emotional issues, though discussed, go somewhat underexamined; Dominic’s general dismissal of Leo and greater belief in the inexplicably jerky Frank could have used a family history lesson; and the case of Leo’s younger, never-married sister-of-a-certain-age, Rosa (Dierdre Friel), is light on dimension. And, for as much as the affable Leo extols his relationship with the cranky Angela, it’s not always clear to see what exactly has kept them bonded all these years (starting in high school, no less).
When late-breaking reasons are floated, if not outright revealed, for some of the characters’ more dubious behaviors, it can feel like too little, too late — without the kind of catharsis or redemption that might send us out more wholly satisfied.
On the plus side, Romano offers an authentic view of Italian American New York life, something the actor-filmmaker, a Queens native, is intimately acquainted with. This includes his boisterous portrayal of Sunday family dinners, replete with heaps of pasta and meatballs, as well as the many community celebrations that regularly rope in friends and relatives (a glitzy local banquet hall named Versailles Palace is ground zero here for these events). It’s hard for scenes like these to entirely avoid seeming cliched — after all, we’ve seen them countless times — but they’re vitally staged and performed.
There’s also a nice use of music, including such fitting standards as “Buona Sera” and “Volare,” along with a sweet cover of Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” and such classic party tunes as “The Twist,” “Limbo Rock” and “Celebration.” The tender score by Mark Orton (“The Good Girl,” “Nebraska”) is another worthy element.
The capable cast is rounded out by Jennifer Esposito as a lonely widow who turns Leo’s head (in a wedged-in, less-than-convincing story strand), Jon Manfrellotti and Danny Garcia as Leo’s mouthy pals and co-workers, and June Gable, underused as Leo’s “Mangia!”-urging mamma.
Somewhere in “Queens” lies a stronger, more unique and inspiring story about family, culture and the place we call home. It’s too bad Romano didn’t fully find it. But as is, this goodhearted if at times misguided version may suffice for its often amusing and touching moments and as a reminder of Romano’s everyman skill in front of a camera.
‘Somewhere in Queens’
Rated: R, for language and some sexual material
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: In general release