Film Review: The King of Staten Island
Co-written and directed by Judd Apatow. US, 2020, 136 minutes.
Available on VOD platforms.
Apatow’s previous film Trainwreck (2015) began with Amy (Schumer) sleeping with a caricature who’s listed in the credits as “Staten Island Oli” (Josh Segarra). He’s first introduced via comments about his dick size, and next by an image of his bedroom walls, which are lined with posters of Scarface (1983), pin-up models, and various other cliché signifiers of bro. Amy tells Oli that she hopes to never see him again, then gets on the ferry, at which point the title card pops up—right as she’s getting back to her job at an ostensibly edgy media company headquartered in Manhattan. Trainwreck is a romantic comedy, so there are of course ups and downs, but the way Apatow directs it this may as well be Amy’s rock bottom: Never more a trainwreck than when she fucks some guy that doesn’t have a fashionable profession, doesn’t live in the city, and is maybe a bit too much into cars.
This inoffensive and moderately humorous scene did nothing so much as it solidified that Apatow is not a filmmaker sincerely engaged with that particular region. And yet here we are. Because what Trainwreck did, along the way to making a solid profit, was attach writer/lead actress Schumer’s public-facing comedy persona to a traditional genre structure—the romcom. And so five years later, with Schumer already by the wayside of comedy fashion, we receive The King of Staten Island, which replicates the model by attaching co-writer/lead actor Pete Davidson’s public-facing comedy person to another traditional genre structure—the provincial, male-oriented coming-of-age film.
Davidson plays the 24-year-old Scott, who of course shares various biographical details with the 26-year-old man that (co-)wrote him. Like Davidson, Scott lives with his mother in Staten Island, suffers from Crohn’s disease, loves showing off his T-shirt collection, is an unashamed pothead, and is the son of a firefighter dad who died in the line of duty. But it’s probably not productive to think much about the ways The King of Staten Island aligns with Davidson’s real life, because like all Judd Apatow movies except Funny People (2009) the characterizations here are quickly contorted to fit the demands of a very basic narrative arc.
It’s typical post-70s American coming of age stuff. The troubled young man butts heads with a character that represents most of his internalized anxieties (a firefighter that starts dating his mom, played by Bill Burr), argues with and then eventually comes to better understand the women in his life (a longtime friend-slash-fuck buddy played by Bel Powley, and the mom herself played by Marisa Tomei), and finally separates himself from his vaguely criminal friend-group (including characters played quite well by Ricky Velez and Moises Arias), clearing the path for a better life in the big city or whatever. That last part makes this sound like I Vitelloni (1953), but the way it actually plays out reminds you that Judd Apatow began his career writing movies like Heavyweights (1995); to wit, the criminal-buddies narrative ends on a second-rate visual gag that would’ve been much better suited in a kid’s movie from the mid-1990s.
To fill in the expanded runtime, all the usual Judd Apatow Movie Stuff is here. There are pointless side plots designed to shoehorn in both good actors and physical comedy bits; like when Scott gets a job at a restaurant operated by Kevin Corrigan where the waiters have to battle for tips using oversized Hulk hands. There are side characters paying lip service towards the idea that the stoner protagonist should probably lay off the drugs; a perspective The King of Staten Island seems to endorse like most Apatow movies before it, but at least doesn’t follow through on lest this become The Way Back (2020). And finally there are numerous digressions that plainly betray the filmmaking team’s own anxieties; including a subplot where Scott tries to “#MeToo” his mom’s new boyfriend that, I shit you not, ends with our protagonist learning the importance of obtaining at least two sources before going public with a salacious report.
Burr is the only actor here to give a truly distinct performance, which he does by getting looney. During the numerous occasions where he’s depicted yelling—like in one of the movie’s few legitimately good scenes, where him and Scott first meet—his mustachioed firefighter character resembles no one so much as Yosemite Sam. It’s really great work. And so when the film’s most genuinely dramatic sequence concludes with him tossing Scott into a pool for a cheap laugh, you believe that Burr’s character really would do the throwing.
Powley’s work is solid, you wouldn’t necessarily guess that she’s from London, but you’d never be fooled into thinking she’s actually from Staten Island either. Steve Buscemi, playing the wizened old firefighter who gives the last-act speech teaching Scott to Forgive His Dad and Accept His Past, gives the kind of performance that actors are prompted to give when they’re cast in a role that was written to secure Best Supporting Actor nominations (but like everything else, he does it well).
And Davidson’s performance is good, although not often humorous. This is the third major release of 2020 to feature the quasi-famous SNL cast member, after Big Time Adolescence, which is another male-oriented bildungsroman, and Alive in New York, which is his first comedy special in four years. Frankly, I’d have guessed it was his first. Alive in New York reveals Davidson to be charming and charismatic, but also quick to coast on those very same qualities—you realize he’s not so much funny as he is just fun to watch (The King of Staten Island does not dissuade one from reaching the same conclusion). Actually, Alive in New York feels more like an acting reel than a comedy performance, which is perhaps not surprising given that it was directed by the same filmmaker, Jason Orley, that did Big Time Adolescence with Davidson around the same time.
Big Time Adolescence isn’t particularly good either, but it’s got one great moment. Like in the Apatow movie, Davidson plays a layabout twenty-something that spends most of his time in a dilapidated stoner palace with a group of guyfriends and one woman that he occasionally has sex with. The difference is that in Orley’s film he’s not the main character—instead the movie focuses on a 16-year-old kid, Monroe, who’s coming of age himself while hanging out with Davidson’s character, Zeke. The great part happens when Monroe tells Zeke that he lost his virginity to Zeke’s girlfriend, who had initiated the encounter to get back at Zeke for cheating on her first. Orley keeps the frame on Zeke for a few beats while his character sits on a couch and tries to process it all—hints of betrayal, pride, bemusement, and a few other things emerge in his reaction—and, really, Davidson nails it. It’s showy acting, but it’s also beautiful to look at. You see the separate emotions all fighting over control of his facial muscles.
Apatow’s own strengths lead his movies to very different and less dramatic highspots. At his best, he lets improv-friendly casts push his dialogue scenes into weird and unexpected destinations—but that means he’s basically screwed with a lead performer that, given the evidence at hand, is probably a better dramatic actor than comedian. Of course The King of Staten Island does go back and forth between comedy and drama. When it’s not using Davidson and his friends to stage retreads of the bro-house comedy scenes from Knocked Up (2007), it’s staging heartfelt pablum in the firehouse and presenting it like a very special episode of prestige TV.
But no matter the mode, from start to finish the film doesn’t feature a single moment of acting from Davidson that’s as fun or as nuanced as the one just described from Big Time Adolescence—because while Apatow’s cinematic temperaments do waver between loosely structured comedy and highly traditional melodrama, he’s never been adept at finding the points where they meet or balance. With this movie, it’s like he wanted to make the National Lampoon version of Five Easy Pieces (1970), but of course it never goes far enough in either direction.
Probably the least rambunctious film that could’ve been made on the subject of a mentally-ill pill-dealing 24-year-old working his way through a manic period, The King of Staten Island delivers hollow blue collar romanticism from a director that’s only depicting these people because they’re pawns in the origin story of a comedian who for a brief moment was fashionable enough to get a studio picture financed on his behalf. And while groups of young people watching this while smoking weed in some basement will probably find it preferable to most other commercial American comedies, that only further illustrates the moribund state of the whole damn sector. [★★]