Palace of Versailles – not the historic residence near Paris – is one of those places. You know, a glitzy space for rent for celebrating weddings, confirmations, and whatever rite of passage calls for dinner and a DJ. For the Italian-American New Yorkers in Somewhere in Queens, it’s not just a place but a way of life, both a necessary communal playground and a loving running joke. As the title suggests, the film encompasses generic types, but intelligent writing, easy-going direction, and a stellar cast give the sentimental, but not effusive, comic-book drama the chaotic oddities and narrative friction to elevate it well above and beyond.
Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Mark Stegemann, Ray Romano directs his first feature film with aplomb, which isn’t about imposing a C-cinema style on the material, but rather capturing its essence and delivering excellence from seasoned professionals and draw newcomers alike. He plays Leo Russo, a fake club-bordering nice guy. Married to his high school sweetheart (Laurie Metcalf) for many years, he has spent his entire adulthood working at his alpha dad’s (Tony Lo Bianco) construction company. His son (Jacob Ward) is about to graduate from high school and joins the family business. When we first see Leo, he’s at the Palace of Versailles with the extended clan, being dissed by a wedding videographer as well as almost everyone at his table.
Somewhere in Queens
The final result
Shoot and score.
Working at Russo Construction, Leo’s smug git of a brother, Frank (Sebastian Maniscalco), throws his weight around as foreman, while likable sidekick and colleague Petey (Jon Manfrellotti) knows how to relieve the tension. Leo is unable to communicate with his father and mistakenly believes lines of communication are wide open with his 18-year-old son Matthew, aka Sticks, the star of his school’s basketball team. He wishes to see Sticks, who has inherited Leo’s restraint, on the pitch in heroic form. “He’s different out there,” Leo assures his father, who listens but doesn’t understand.
When the opportunity for a basketball scholarship to college in Philadelphia arises, Leo is more excited than his son and definitely more than his wife Angela, a tough guy who tends to be angry and suspicious as well as practical and wise, and who is still struggling with unexplored fears just a few years after undergoing surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer. Both Leo and Angela are taken aback to discover that Sticks has a girlfriend, but while Leo is slightly blinded by the confident Danielle (Sadie Stanley), the skeptical Angela develops an instant dislike for her.
The chemistry between Ward and Stanley is sweet and strong, creating convincing sparks between Sticks’ amorous awkwardness and Danielle’s experience. Bold and talkative, she makes an impression at the boisterous table at the Russos’ regular Sunday afternoon dinner, where Mama Russo (June Gable) calls out “Mangia tutti!” and the affectionate insults fly fast and furious, especially between Frank and Sister Rosa (Dierdre Friel, Physically), who is single and still lives with the people.
While his son is in the agony of first love, thanks to the flirtatious attention of a widowed client, Pamela (Jennifer Esposito, absolutely perfect), Leo feels seen in a way he hasn’t felt in years. As the story progresses, it’s all about how parents can project their own hopes and dreams onto their children, culminating in a ruse led by Leo in a spectacularly clumsy manner, destined to blow him up.
From the first to the last moment, the screenplay by Romano and Stegemann, who worked together on the TNT series men of a certain agecaptures the way people talk, from the interjected “irregardless” to the clever humor, from the way Danielle is quick to point out that she’s not from the “posh part” of Forest Hills Gardens , down to Leo’s annoying habit of quoting from Rocky.
In this tale of middle-aged reckoning and teenage awakening, there are many moments of selfishness masquerading as apprehension. Almost everyone messes up, almost everyone means well, and no one is just one or the other. Just as the design work of Annie Simeone Morales and Megan Stark Evans never announces itself, Maceo Bishop’s cinematography and Robert Nassau’s editing are aptly naturalistic and understated. Whether it’s a conversation in a car, a meltdown in a doctor’s office, the suspense on a basketball court, or the interpersonal drama in the stands, everything about the film makes the characters shine—and there’s not one who doesn’t.
Led by Romano and Metcalf, with their well-known talent for playing “ordinary” people, the ensemble finds the pounding, nervous hearts of the characters. No one comes off the hook, and everyone learns a thing or two. Some of the lessons are harsh, but they are tempered by Romano’s fondness for the characters. The most predictable and obvious thing about the film is the way it contrasts well-meaning mouth-to-mouth Leo and his big, loud family with Danielle’s cold, absent-minded, wealthy parents.
As a native Forest Hills native (not the Gardens and definitely not the fancy part) I’m puzzled by the film’s title. People from Brooklyn might say they’re from Brooklyn, but I know people from Queens who say they’re from Jamaica or Middle Village or Long Island City or Astoria. Romano mostly avoids giving a location, although anyone familiar with the district will recognize the general setting of the Russos saga. Perhaps this vague “somewhere” is a hug, a universal Versailles palace of the spirit: gather here to celebrate the milestones, play your prescribed role and know where you belong – until something gives way and another place comes into view.