At first glance, it would seem like you could easily dismiss Judd Apatow‘s latest effort, The King of Staten Island. It’s another 2-hour-plus tale of arrested development about a guy in his 20s who spends all day getting high and hanging with friends, but must work to put his life together. But that broad description doesn’t do justice to the maturity Apatow shows in his direction, nor does it properly respect the unique vibe that co-writer and star Pete Davidson brings to the picture. Although The King of Staten Island is kind of a shapeless and shaggy character piece, the tone fits perfectly with the main character while not losing sight of the dramatic stakes of the story. Rather than the improv-fest of previous Apatow comedies, The King of Staten Island is more of an indie drama that happens to have some really sharp jokes.
Scott (Davidson) is 24 years old and still lives at home with his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei). Both are living in a state of arrested development since the death of Scott’s firefighter father when he was seven, but their lives are disrupted when Margie meets Ray (Bill Burr), another firefighter. Scott initially rejects this new father figure, but as Ray and Margie start pushing Scott out of the nest, he finally has to come to grips with his father’s legacy and his own responsibilities. However, this is far from a straight line as Scott, an aspiring tattoo artist, is an admitted screw-up who has a good heart despite his obvious immaturity.
Although there are elements of The King of Staten Island that are autobiographical to Davidson (his father was a firefighter who died on 9/11, Davidson and his character both have Crohn’s disease and smoke a lot of weed), Apatow treats the material like a character piece rather than The Pete Davidson Story Starring Pete Davidson. Apatow has never shied away from long runtimes, but here it feels appropriate. There’s a way to tighten up this narrative and make it more efficient, but that wouldn’t be in tune with the protagonist. There’s nothing timely or organized about Scott, so why would you make the movie that way? Instead, you just kind of hang out with the character and let Davidson’s unique charisma do the work.
I’ve now seen two movies where Davidson has a major role (this and Big Time Adolescence) and I’m still not sure how I feel about him. He certainly has comic timing and screen presence, and yet I don’t know if he has the range to play characters that don’t mirror his own life and experiences. For the time being, that’s not really an issue. No one has cast Davidson to play the lead in Hamlet (although I would love to see that adaptation), but here in this semi-autobiographical tale, he’s unsurprisingly perfect. Since Davidson is an SNL cast member and standup comic, the question gets asked, “Is he funny?” but I think for our purposes here with The King of Staten Island, the better question is, “Is he effective?” and the answer is a resounding “Yes.” He makes you feel empathy for this charming dirt-bag, and unlike other Apatow comedies, he doesn’t have the benefit of a litany of clever one-liners.
Some may wander into The King of Staten Island looking for the laugh riot of previous Apatow films, but that’s not this movie even though he’s starting from the same place of “funny person plays immature character.” The film works better when you accept that it’s more of a drama that happens to have jokes. There’s no scene where a bunch of improv-savvy actors try to top each other with jokes and insults. Instead, Apatow largely plays it straight before sneaking up on you with surprisingly dark humor that Davidson and his co-stars can fire off with a grin. I worry that people will dismiss Staten Island as not as funny as Apatow’s other movies when it’s clear that’s not really what he and Davidson are going for. This is not the same, bright, comic world of Knocked Up or Trainwreck. Apatow and cinematographer Robert Elswit are shooting the film handheld and with a muted color palette because they’re more interested in making a character drama than a laugh-a-minute comedy.
There are some times where the film seems to get away from Apatow a bit, especially with regards to the large supporting cast. The focus on Davidson is where the film shines, but there are loads of supporting characters that don’t necessarily illuminate his story, or they’re built up as more important than they actually end up being like his sister Claire (Maude Apatow) or the guys who are supposedly Scott’s best friends. But these are minor issues that rarely distract from the larger work that becomes a fascinating look at how trauma can shape our entire lives and the difficulty of moving forward. Apatow and Davidson understand that Scott’s journey to maturity isn’t about giving up a dream of being a tattoo artist or putting on nicer clothes or smoking less weed. It’s about coping with a painful past and understanding his father as a person rather than an idea. Sure, it’s an arrested development story, but it also shows that Apatow is growing up.
The King of Staten Island is now available to rent on PVOD.