April 21, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. Big Italian families in New York offer a smorgasbord of opportunities for interesting stories and characters. Ray Romano from “Everybody Loves Raymond” takes on his first feature film as writer-director, and he and co-writer Mark Stegemann (“Scrubs”) embrace the noise and combustibility of just such a family. During the story they make us laugh and cringe.

Romano also stars as Leo Russo, husband to Angela (Laurie Metcalf, “Roseanne”) and father to “Sticks” (relative newcomer Jacob Ward). What we soon figure out is that Leo is a helicopter parent to high school basketball star Sticks, while Mom is overprotective and scared of losing her son … while being constantly annoyed with everything due to another issue she’s trying to deal with on her own. We also see Leo works in the family construction business for his dad (Tony Lo Bianco) and douchey brother (Sebastian Maniscalo), both of whom show him no respect.

Sticks is an extremely quiet and shy high schooler who has battled anxiety issues his entire life. Both parents are shocked to discover he has a girlfriend. Dani (Sadie Stanley, “The Goldbergs”) is a free-spirit who is ready to shake the dust of Queens as soon as she graduates. She and Sticks couldn’t be any more different as she is confident and outgoing in contrast to his usual state of withdrawn.

During one of the big family Sunday dinners, we get one of the best meatball jokes ever, and the many family events (weddings, babies, etc) provide numerous opportunities for gags and punchlines. Beyond the comedy, there is true drama on display, and it kicks into uncomfortable gear when helicopter dad displays extremely poor judgment … made worse that he’s doing it for the wrong reason. His actions send shockwaves through the family. Parents often use “their kid’s best interest” as a reason for making decisions, but here it’s obvious to all (except Leo) that self-interest was the driving force.

There is a bit of a sitcom feel to the film at times, but the cast certainly elevates the project making the situations more believable. It’s awesome to see Tony Lo Bianco with a substantive role. He was everywhere in the 1970s and 1980s, including classic films THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and THE SEVEN-UPS (1973). Ramono, Metcalf, and Maniscalo are all fine in their roles, and additional support work comes from John Manfrellotti, Jennifer Esposito (“Blue Bloods”), and Karen Lynn Gurney (for the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER fans). But the real find here is Sadie Stanley and her electrifying smile. She is a true rising star. The film is full of characters who are all frightened or unsure, and despite the iffy family dynamics, it’s a reminder that each person must find their own way in life, even if the support from their family is a bit shaky.

Opening in theaters on April 21, 2023