When a TV show manages to stay on the air long enough to make its stars rich, the post-cancellation careers of the cast are always fascinating: We get to see what kind of work the actors would do if money were no object, because, well, it isn’t. Maybe they buy the old RKO lot and start their own studio. Maybe they produce, co-write, and star in an animated movie about bees. Or maybe they do what Ray Romano is doing, and quietly become one of the country’s great character actors. Romano has been making interesting choices since Everybody Loves Raymond ended back in 2005, but for the past five years he’s been on an incredible run, turning out one career-best performance after another in roles ranging from a smooth-talking mob lawyer in 2019’s The Irishman to a barely talking misfit in that same year’s Paddleton. Here’s Slate’s guide to the great art of the Ray Romanoissance.
The Big Sick
It’s easy to hail The Big Sick as the opening bell in Romano’s current run, but he got the part only after nailing a small cameo in Judd Apatow’s 2009 film Funny People. “He was so good in it, it kind of boggled our mind that people haven’t used Ray in movies more,” said Barry Mendel, one of the producers on both movies. Directed by Michael Showalter, the 2017 indie hit stars Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan as characters based on the real-life couple of Nanjiani and Emily Gordon. Romano plays Kazan’s character’s father, who shows up after she’s hospitalized for a lung infection and placed into a medically induced coma. The rom-com leverages Romano’s amiable charm in interesting ways in a showcase monologue about infidelity:
Romano delivers “Soon as I was finished—soon as I finished, I was like, ‘What did you fucking do?’ ” in a stand-up sort of cadence, like he’s building to a big punchline, but flips all that energy into self-loathing as he practically wails, “What did you do?” It’s a little overplayed, maybe, but he’s going for it. For my money, though, Romano’s best moment in the film is the infamous 9/11 joke, both for his inarticulate stumbling as he broaches the topic with Nanjiani and for his absolutely perfect reaction to the punchline, combining a dead-eyed glare with slow-motion chewing:
This is Romano’s best performance and nowhere near enough people have seen it. The dramedy, which premiered at Sundance in 2019 before a quiet release on Netflix (where it’s still streaming), stars Romano and Mark Duplass as neighbors and best friends whose routines—structured around a terrible kung fu movie and a paddleball game they’ve invented—are thrown into disarray when Duplass is diagnosed with terminal cancer and asks Romano to help him end his life with dignity.
Romano and Duplass’ characters take a road trip to Solvang, California, to find a pharmacy that will fill a prescription for euthanasia drugs, which makes it the grimmest Sideways riff imaginable. That…