The King of Staten Island: In the Middle, by David Bax
Judd Apatow’s last narrative feature as a director, 2015’s Trainwreck, includes a joke in which Amy Schumer’s lead character is appalled to find herself on Staten Island. His newest, The King of Staten Island, may continue the filmmaker’s trajectory of diminishing returns (and of overlong runtimes) but at least it makes amends to New York City’s forgotten borough, establishing it as a relatable community where locals are as likely to disparage as celebrate its specifics, like the (now closed) largest landfill in the world or the fact that it made for a perfectly dystopian location to shoot 2018’s The First Purge.
Like Trainwreck, The King of Staten Island is a showcase for a young comedic talent. This time, there’s an extra dose of autobiography. Pete Davidson stars as Scott, a directionless stoner who, like Davidson, lost his firefighter father as a boy. Scott’s stunted emotional growth is tolerated–even encouraged–by his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), his friends (Moises Arias, Rickey Velez, Lou Wilson, Carly Aquilino), who smoke so much weed they don’t even get high anymore but “like the lifestyle,” and his not-quite girlfriend (Bel Powley), who would like to be involved in more of Scott’s “life events.” That all changes, though, when Margie starts dating again for the first time in seventeen years. Her new beau, Ray (Bill Burr), is another firefighter who forces Scott to confront his unresolved feelings about his dad’s death and what he wants out of life.
Men living in states of arrested adolescence are, fairly or not, considered Apatow’s stock-in-trade. Here, though, Scott’s backstory makes his stalled development both sympathetic and tragic. In illustrating Scott’s constant, dull anguish, Apatow takes cues from Davidson’s own sometimes uncomfortably candid comedy. An early scene in which Scott closes his eyes while driving ends in a joke but The King of Staten Island acknowledges that the outcome of such nihilistically self-destructive behavior could’ve been much different.
Unfortunately, Davidson has yet to establish onscreen skills other than those honed by his years on Saturday Night Live. He’s still prone to mugging, which undercuts the weight of his character’s story and the naturalism Apatow seeks with his loose style. Burr, on the other hand, turns out to be a perfect fit for the Apatow system. His quick tongue (rattling off statistics of athletes and their achievements by the time they were Scott’s age is a highlight), talent for comedic syntax and his career-long empathy for the daily indignities of the lower middle class make Ray a fully formed and consistently hilarious character.
Ray’s attempts to bond with Scott lead to The King of Staten Island‘s best scene, in which the two attend a Yankees game (the Staten Island Yankees, that is) with Ray’s fellow firemen (including Domenick Lombardozzi, Jimmy Tatro and real-life ex-firefighter Steve Buscemi). The fluid camerawork and the mix of dusk and stadium lights–the great Robert Elswit is a welcome addition to Apatow’s creative team–and the first funny, then angry, then sad monologue from Scott about why firemen shouldn’t have families is a taste of what the movie could have been under more focused stewardship.
But that’s not Apatow and it’s frankly becoming more and more frustrating to watch his movies. Those good impulses are given equal time to the bad ones–like sitcommy scenes that just seem like transcribed stand-up bits–and no one seems to be able to help him tell the difference. The overreliance on improvisation leads to scenes that either go nowhere (Buscemi’s character’s anticlimactic story about Scott’s dad) or to contradictions (if Scott never graduated high school, why didn’t his sister mention that when he said her own graduation is no big deal because “everyone graduates from high school”?). It’s not just that The King of Staten Island is so flawed. It’s that it couldn’t be more obvious what those flaws are and how easily they could have been excised.