For a name often associated with the mid-2000s peak of the “Frat Pack,” Judd Apatow has never seemed interested in directing broadly juvenile comedies. Sure, every one of his six directorial efforts focuses on a case of arrested development, but each dick joke within is steeped in vulnerability. This hyper-fixation on overgrown children is simultaneously Apatow’s greatest strength and most unmanaged weakness, both of which are on full display in his latest The King of Staten Island.
Pete Davidson, the film’s star and co-writer , feels like he was invented in a lab by Apatow—and, in a way, he was. At just 21, the stand-up comedian landed a small part opposite Bill Hader in the Apatow-directed Trainwreck, which thrust him onto the radar of Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels. He’s spent the years that followed making scattershot SNL appearances, flaunting his high-profile romances, and finding himself in the occasional tabloid controversy. Rarely does Davidson feel like the villain of these narratives; he’s just a kid who’s way too deep in over his head, and he has no problem talking about it.
Davidson has built his foundation on self-deprecation, so it’s only natural that his semi-autobiographical movie does the same. In lesser hands, The King of Staten Island could play like self-parody, but Apatow has a penchant to dig deeper. Remember when the internet collectively discovered Funny People is just a reimagining of The Great Gatsby by way of Adam Sandler? Staten Island doesn’t go so far as to reinvent classic literature, though after a few drinks, I’m sure you could convince someone this swipes plenty from Hamlet: a ne’er-do-well grief-stricken by his father’s passing comes to blows with his mother’s new beau, all while wrestling with the family legacy? Sure. (Author’s note: While showering last night, I was able to fully convince myself this movie *is* just Hamlet, sans-alcohol, but I’ll spare you those ramblings.)
Davidson portrays Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old self-described bum who still lives with his mom (an outstanding Marisa Tomei) and college-bound sister (Maude Apatow). His firefighter father died when he was seven—a direct parallel to Davidson’s real-life father, also named Scott, who died on 9/11. Scott rarely leaves his basement. “I love it here. It’s safe,” he says when a friend proposes they find literally anything else to do besides sitting in the dark smoking weed. His only goal in life is to open a restaurant that doubles as a tattoo parlor, but you see, that requires at least some sort of initiative, which Scott simply does not have.
For much of Staten Island, Apatow rarely ventures outside of our protagonist’s passive point of view. Aside from his mother’s initial meetings with her new boyfriend Ray (Bill Burr) and a tonally-jumbled scene inside a pharmacy, we only experience the story as it falls into place around Scott. While Ray is the closest thing the movie has to a “villain,” it is Scott’s war within himself that stokes any conflict. Through his own inaction, we watch as every relationship in his life slowly crumbles, be it with his family, his troublesome but loyal friend group, or the girl he can’t admit he has feelings for.
In an 137-minute movie, it’s a miracle that such passive scenes work at all, especially coupled with Scott’s general antagonism. Yet, their success is a testament to the cast Apatow has assembled. This is especially true in the latter half of the film, when Ray’s crew of firefighting friends take on a larger role in Scott’s life. Played in part by Domenick Lombardozzi, Jimmy Tatro, and real-life firefighter Steve Buscemi, each of these characters are warm in their own way. It’s rare thing to see older tough guys in a profession symbolic of hyper-masculinity sing and laugh and embrace each other, never shying away from affection, and it’s a welcome sight.
Otherwise, the movie plays out scene-for-scene, beat-for-beat almost exactly how you’d imagine. Apatow doesn’t even seem interested in pulling the rug out from underneath the audience, and in most cases, that lack of subversion would be a nail in the coffin of any comedy. Yet, it’s apparent Staten Island isn’t aiming for belly laughs. First and foremost, it’s a film about Scott coming to terms with his grief, and despite his attitude, we’re rooting for him every step of the way. Davidson bears the weight of the story on his shoulders, and Scott is given plenty of runtime to organically clean up his act.
At best, Apatow’s features serve as a conduit for incredible comedic talent, and are at worst buoyed by them. Fortunately, The King of Staten Island falls into the former category. Pete Davidson’s performance feels like an old friend, and though it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it feels so genuine. That affable energy, alongside Apatow’s touch, carries Scott’s journey well beyond your average stoner comedy.
VERDICT: The King of Staten Island may be a little too long, but it’s surprisingly sweet for a dark comedy about grief. Judd Apatow has built a strong story around a stacked cast, with Pete Davidson shining brightest amongst them all.
The King of Staten Island is currently available to rent on demand.