After Jerry Seinfeld and his “What’s the deal?” color commentary on the silliness of the quotidian struck gold in Seinfeld, comedians started to habitually appear in comedies and sitcoms, popping up like dandelions, most of it harmless. But rarely was anyone or anything as incisively irreverent or eccentric or intelligent as what Seinfeld and Larry David did. Everybody Loves Raymond, starring Ray Romano as a version of himself but in Long Island instead of Queens, is one of these unremarkable shows that, nonetheless, makes for pleasurable background viewing, a pleasant concatenation of a decade’s worth of episodes seeping into each other, auto-playing, the show’s regularities — Ray screwing up; his mother barging in bellowing purported wisdom; his Lurch of a brother maundering through the door, filling the frame, and mumbling morosely; the perplexed look of Ray’s wife Debra’s face as she witnesses the wake of Ray’s idiocy, and the way her voice raises slightly with a loving frustration, jokes eliciting canned laughter and punctuating the drone of familiar voices enmeshed into genial vagueness — like tiny oscillations mingling in a white noise machine outside your therapist’s office door.
Raymond keeps to the tradition of classic family dysfunction like The Honeymooners and All in the Family, minus the indelible characters and sharp insight on a plethora of cultural and human complexities; its humor is pedestrian and broad, yet there’s also nothing to outright dislike. It’s simply not daring enough. Following in those footsteps, Somewhere in Queens, which Romano co-wrote, directed, and in which he stars, is likewise wholly unremarkable, a true case of writing what you know, playing it safe (or, perhaps, he’s an auteur?). But that’s also kind of fine because it’s at least the kind of endearing comedy we used to get before everything was marketed to pre-teens.
Somewhere in Queens’ writing can, architecturally and verbally, be sloppy, and the supporting characters aren’t all that colorful, but there’s also a genuine sensitivity to familial turmoil and characters of a certain age reconciling their anxieties. Romano plays Leo Russo, the kind of guy who asks the videographer at a wedding to cut him out of the video, a real middle-class mook. Dominick (Tony Lo Bianco), the Russo family patriarch, owns and operates the construction company that, naturally, employs the rest of the family. Leo, the less-loved son, reports to his self-important brother, Frank (Sebastian Manisalco). Leo is profoundly petrified that his wife, Angela (Laurie Metcalf), difficult though she may be, will realize that he’s a schmuck and leave. Metcalf always proves reliably wonderful, elevating everything she’s in, from early TV appearances on Roseanne to the lunatic mother of a lunatic son in Scream 2 to even a woman with a dilapidated sense of reality who lives in a ramshackle house in Nowhere, USA and who tells an amnesia-stricken Tony Shaloub that they married and then proceeds to demean him in her Emmy-nominated episode of Monk. Here, Angela is a cancer survivor, and her abrasive pugnaciousness makes her tough to love, but Leo loves her nonetheless. Their son Matthew (Jacob Ward), also known as “Sticks” thanks to his lanky legs, is shy, what you might call awkward, but he’s also a freak on the basketball court. And lest we forget, ‘70s character actor Lo Bianco pops up, which is worth a ticket in itself. Admittedly, in all this there’s an inchoate confusion to the glut of performances, from Metcalf’s stylized histrionics to the minimalism of Romano’s work, but it doesn’t irk too much. Movies can be messy.
Romano took a while to learn how to act. The early seasons of Raymond are stifled by his staid, at times almost somnolent presence; but like Jerry on Seinfeld, the show needs a straight man around whom the tumult and ridiculousness of the other, odder characters can wrap like wobbly whorls. Romano is significantly better in the later seasons, and here, perhaps enlivened and inspired by Metcalf’s stellar work in a tough role, is actually quite good, subtly woebegone and tender. And in a scene where he asks the girl who just broke his son’s heart if she can wait three more weeks, just until the basketball season is over, to end things, Romano finds a kind of vulnerability, a do-anything-for-your-kids earnestness that lands. Likely, this represents his best performance outside of The Irishman, in which the Queens-bred funnyman plays the modest but important role of a mob lawyer, underplaying the role but with a spark of life in his step, laced with the pride and pleasure he takes in his work.
Unfortunately, Romano proves a much better actor than director, shooting scenes with a mundanity that makes it tough to analyze because no particular shots are to any degree memorable. There are movies that are a thrill to write about — good films, maybe even (gasp!) great ones, bad ones for sure — but the mediocre ones, the ones that fail to leave an impression, those tend to be the worst. Somewhere in Queens is one of those films. There are no major qualms to document, and the viewing experience is likely to be better than the reflection period for most viewers. It’s a fine enough feature to take your parents to so that they can reminisce about the golden days of the Raymond ’90s, but there simply isn’t enough here to expect anyone to remember much of this past the day after.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 16.