So you should know going into The King of Staten Island that, yes, director Judd Apatow hasn’t changed his aesthetic in terms of narrative length or character ingredients. A too-long comedic drama (emphasis on the drama here) focusing on a typical man-child who’s failed to launch himself, Staten Island hopes to be more endearing than it ultimately is. But, perhaps almost refreshingly, the glossier sheen that was wiped over previous efforts like Knocked Up and Trainwreck, has been replaced here with a grit that plays hand-in-hand with lead Pete Davidson’s semi-autobiographical screenplay.
And even though Apatow hasn’t adhered to the constant criticism he’s received regarding trimming certain aspects of his overly-long stories, there’s no denying that he still knows how to control his components in terms of his actors and their performances. Unlike the loose-canon/improv temperament that the likes of Steve Carell and Seth Rogen are known for, Davidson’s performance feels remarkably restrained. Perhaps a testament to Davidson’s very personal connection to the story (his character, like Davidson himself, has Crohn’s disease and lost his firefighter father at age 7), under the guidance of Apatow the dark core of the narrative feels wonderfully offset by the natural performances he is able to conduct.
As personal a story it may be to Davidson though, there’s nothing particularly innovative about what transpires on screen. His character has no direction, he indulges heavily in recreational drugs, he keeps his emotions at bay to the people that actually give a shit about him…he’s often quite frustrating in his actions, and, as is tradition with movies of this ilk, it’s supposedly meant to be a charming trait. Davidson has understandably suffered from losing his father at a young age, but his character uses it as some kind of crutch to justify his behaviour, which proves quite taxing in a story that has little meat on its narrative bone as is.
The narrative that is there however centres predominantly around Scott (Davidson) who, quite aimlessly, has to figure out how to navigate his life when his mother (Marisa Tomei) starts dating a new man (Bill Burr) who, like his deceased father, is a fire fighter. Understandable tension arises between both Scott and his mother, and Scott and her new beau (not helped by the fact that Scott attempted to tattoo his very young son prior to their meeting), and instead of attempting a situational humour approach with this dynamic (something that easily could’ve been done), Apatow’s script – written in collaboration with Davidson and Saturday Night Live scribe Dave Sirus – maintains a natural, at-times uncomfortable seasoning that, whilst not always traditionally entertaining, lends an authenticity to proceedings.
Due to the personal nature the story and character has to Davidson, it stands to reason too that his performance would be grounded in an organic manner. Not once does he ever feel like he’s acting, and as frustrating as his character traits may be, there’s no way that his turn here can be discredited in any way. Tomei also deserves attention, the actress radiating a warmth that makes her suffering as a single parent and her ultimate happiness in finding a new partner all the more effective. In fact, Apatow’s handling of all his female characters is commendable, with Maude Apatow (his real-life daughter) and Bel Powley as, respectively, Scott’s younger sister and his friend-with-benefits cutting through the bro-comradery that usually dominates these films.
Despite Davidson’s background as a comedian – though his SNL work rarely sees him play big as a character – The King of Staten Island is a surprisingly grounded film that operates more as a drama with the sporadic comedic moment or dialogue inserted to offset its, at times, depressing grit. Those expecting a comedy on par with Apatow’s previous, more celebrated work – The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Step Brothers, Bridesmaids, etc – will be disappointed, with the film surviving more so as a showcase for Davidson’s capabilities as a performer.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The King of Staten Island is screening in Australian theatres from July 16th 2020. It’s available to watch now through various Video On Demand platforms in the United States.