By Noah Gittell
In “Somewhere in Queens”, Ray Romano plays a regular, middle-aged guy with a complicated family life and an interest in sports. You don’t have to squint to see Ray Barrone, the character he played for nine seasons on “Everybody Loves Raymond”, the character he is best known for. It’s a surprising choice; Romano has challenged himself in prior films “The Big Sick” and “Paddleton”, but for this film, his directorial debut, he stuck a little closer to home.
Somehow both surprising and uninspiring, “Somewhere in Queens” hides a dark and twisted core that occasionally breaks through its sitcom-like surface. The story revolves around Leo (Romano), a contractor who is stuck working for his father and arrogant younger brother (Sebastian Maniscalco), who has projected all his regrets and broken dreams onto his son Sticks (Jacob Ward). Nicknamed for his long legs, Sticks is a star basketball player at his small high school with plans to go into the family business, but when a college recruiter notices his talents, it opens up doors that were always closed to his father.
It’s a thoughtful setup disrupted by a clunky bit of plotting: Sticks secures a try-out with Drexel University, where he will compete against other students all angling for a final scholarship slot, but Leo is concerned that Sticks’ recent breakup with Dani (Sadie Stanley) will mess with the kid’s nerves. He sets out trying to convince Dani to get back together with his son and keep seeing him until the tryouts have concluded. He’s concerned about his son’s confidence. He’s less concerned about the feelings of the poor girl, whom he treats like an unpaid call girl for his 18-year-old progeny.
Sure, there are other problems with “Somewhere in Queens”, most of which occur at the script level. Leo’s wife Angela (Laurie Metcalf) has a subplot regarding a potential recurrence of cancer that feels like it was only created to beef up her character and attract an actor of Metcalf’s talents. She and Romano make a believable couple, but their relationship feels more pasted on than lived in.
None of it is as cringeworthy as what Leo does to Dani. Not to belabor the point, but its unexamined creepiness simply tanks the movie. In a romantic comedy for adults, it would be laughed off as contrived and clichéd, but imposing such an emotional burden onto Dani, who is essentially still a child, carries with it psychological overtones that Romano as a director is unwilling to probe, or maybe even see.
It’s like the characters from “Everybody Loves Raymond” slipped into a bizarro universe in which none of their sitcom problems get resolved at the end of the episode but instead pile on top of each other until they reach shocking levels of unpleasantness. Romano has always been willing to explore darker corners of the human soul; his work in “Paddleton” as the best friend of a man embarking on assisted suicide is stunningly complex. But he seems torn here between his darker, more artistic impulses and an urge to tell a story about an Italian American family that we’ve seen many times before, and not just on his sitcom. Even the title “Somewhere in Queens” sets expectations for warmly familiar, making it all the more jarring when he steps out on a Freudian ledge.
As the co-writer, director, and star, it’s clearly a personal story for Romano, and while he’s a winning presence in the film — as he always is — the actor would have been better served handing either the writing or the directing off to a more seasoned film professional. It’s a bizarre mix of friendly pleasures and strange diversions, and Romano never feels totally in control of the film’s tone. There’s something admirable about an actor with Romano’s impressive resume trying to stretch his talents at this stage of his career. He just stretched a little too far.