It may come as a surprise to anyone who only knows him from the sitcom that made him a household name, but Ray Romano can really act. This first became apparent to many via his performance in “Parenthood,” Jason Katims’ small-screen adaptation of the Ron Howard movie that surpassed its source material in every way, and was further solidified when he held his own against Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in “The Irishman.” As it turns out, Romano can also direct. He does both in debut feature “Somewhere in Queens,” in which Romano plays a working-class family man whose son may or may not be going to college on a basketball scholarship.
Despite the fact that Sticks (Jacob Ward) stands 6’2″ and is his team’s star player, the idea of a scholarship never occurs to anyone until a recruiter happens to see him in action. It’s been a foregone conclusion for years that Sticks will join the family construction business that his father, uncle and grandfather are all part of. Leo (Romano) is lower in the pecking order than both of them, so he’s initially inclined to agree when they say that college is pointless — Sticks is just going to end up working for them anyway, so why delay the inevitable by four years? The only one who truly disagrees is the boy’s free-spirited girlfriend (Sadie Stanley), whom his mother didn’t know existed until recently.
As Sticks’ mom, Laurie Metcalf plays a cancer survivor named Angela who wants as much time with her son as she can possibly get. She knows better than anyone that it isn’t assured. She’s great in the role (when is she not?), showing how the exhaustion of running a household is far from mutually exclusive with unconditional love for everyone in it. She’s wary of Sticks’ new flame — but to be fair, she’d likely be wary of any girl who’d dare take an interest in her only child. She’s just that kind of mother, and while it might be frustrating for Sticks, it’s frequently amusing for us.
“Somewhere in Queens” is a low-stakes slice of life for much of its runtime, with most of the actual conflict stemming from a questionable decision Leo makes to ensure his son’s success. That doesn’t necessarily make it feel slight, however, as the film is such an affectionate love letter to the Italian American families who populate the eponymous borough that you don’t mind simply sharing the dinner table with them. The exaggerated mannerisms and verbal sparring aren’t exactly new territory for Romano, but he proves as comfortable behind the camera as he is in front of it. (In addition to directing and starring, he also produced and co-wrote the script with his former “Men of a Certain Age” writer Mark Stegemann.)
As in his other roles, much of Romano’s gravitas comes from his voice. Somewhere between Muppet and sad-sack, it masks Leo’s pain without fully hiding it. (It also makes lines like “I heard it’s bad for the earth when they fart, the cows” and “The heart goes wherever it wants; it’s like a coyote” considerably funnier than they would be if delivered by someone else.)
Angela’s affectionate assessment of her husband as being “so fucking stupid sometimes” isn’t inaccurate, but it’s also not the whole story — she can’t help saying it with love in her voice. Leo may not have gone as far in life as he would have wanted to, and his efforts to help his son achieve more than he has are shaky at best. But he’s trying his damndest, so we can’t help but gravitate toward him the same way his family does.