The King of Staten Island, Casually Funny, Humanist Drama

***Originally shared on The Film Experience***

The King of Staten Island is both typical Judd Apatow and a pretty big departure from the world he knows and has often depicted on screen. Make no mistake, it’s an overlong, meandering coming-of-story about a slacker who can’t get his head on straight until he does (very familiar), but it also features a deeper psychological profile than we’re used to seeing in Apatow’s films. 

Like many of Judd’s efforts, his latest uses the particular talents of a gifted comedian and crafts around them a semi-autobiographical tale of love and loss. Pete Davidson’s father was a fireman who tragically perished in the ashes of 9/11, and so it goes that Davidson is portraying a wayward 24 year-old named Scott who lives with an exhausted mother (Marisa Tomei) and his college-bound sister (Maude Apatow), and is still dealing with the loss of a fireman dad he knew only as a saint. There’s a familiar, loose, improvisational quality to the comedic moments, when Apatow predictably allows his actors to free-associate and riff off one another without a script to tie them down.

This has worked in the past with seminal films like The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, and less beloved titles like Funny People. Here, either the actors lack the improv skills of a Rogen or a Sandler or the director has decided that making people laugh isn’t as important. An aspiring tattoo artist, Scott spends his days smoking pot with a gaggle of neighborhood miscreants and only one of them (Moises Arias) stands out as a likable, amusing presence. He’s a frustrated loser with artistic merit to spare, he just can’t get out of his own way. He’s prone to impulsivity and self-destructive behavior, such as tattooing a nine year-old kid or closing his eyes while driving to block out the boredom of everyday life. In fact, Staten Island may be the most accurate portrait of attention-deficit disorder ever put to film.

Unlike Trainwreck and the rest of them, there are no celebrity cameos or constant pitter-patters about the entertainment industry. It’s a New York movie to its core, and Pete Davidson’s distinct voice is found in the unlikeliest of grace notes: discussing one-percenter classism at a college party or expounding on his idea for a Frankenstein tattoo shop and restaurant. What sets Staten Island apart the most is its sense of place, firmly rooted in East Coast working class suburbia and blue collar storefronts. Bel Powley is perfectly cast as a Staten Island townie who believes in her little home’s promise to become the next big hood. She’s known Scott since they were kids and they have an odd friendship-with-benefits (and maybe more) that is quite endearing, a small love story that adds motivation and some minor conflict to his inevitable character arc. 

Most of the conflict centers on Mom’s new boyfriend Ray (Bill Burr), also a fireman, moving in to alter Scott’s unchanging, carefully curated slacker existence. Scott doesn’t like that she’s dating a fireman and his inability to process his father’s death results in familial chaos. Ray is a tightly wound ball of intensity, a live-wire of pent-up anger and trigger-happy sarcasm that is casually funny and occasionally poignant in the hands of a stand-up comic like Burr. He and Davidson enjoy a properly uneasy chemistry, as their characters are at each other’s throats more than half the time. King comes alive when these two are forced to get along in the aftermath of such chaos, the both of them at one point living together at the local firehouse among a group of firemen made up of Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Tatro (Bad Education), and Domenick Lombardozzi (The Irishman), among others. There Apatow finds the sense of camaraderie and charm that is sorely missing in some of those earlier scenes. 

Pete Davidson may yet have a robust career ahead, and at its best, The King of Staten Island is proof of his talents more than it is a dramatic return to comedy for Judd Apatow. This is a movie about a man-child, yes, but also a young man suffering from childhood trauma and adulthood depression. By now, I think the filmmaker ought to be known more as a purveyor of humanist drama a la James L. Brooks than the so-called king of R-rated comedy.

Grade: B

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