I’d never laid eyes on Pete Davidson before, nor have I ever set foot on Staten Island in all the time I’ve spent in New York City; nobody has ever remotely recommended it, although I must say that one scene in The King of Staten Island shot at the local minor league baseball park affords so spectacular a view of Manhattan across the water beyond centerfield that I may have to take in a game there next time I’m in town.
Happily, the distant scenery is not all Judd Apatow’s new film has going for it, far from it. The director’s first film since Trainwreck five years ago, written by him along with Davidson and Dave Sirus, has the solid lived-in feel of a working class community in which everyone not only knows each other but pokes their noses into other people’s business and has to tolerate, shall we say, less than well-mannered behavior on the part of their relatives and neighbors. They’re rude, they’re slobs, they’re layabouts, they’re no-accounts and they all speak in clichés as if they’ve learned their entire vocabularies from watching TV. It’s a film full of characters who have to say “I’m sorry” a lot. Bottom line, though–they’re all quite recognizably and vibrantly human.
Being an Apatow film also means that the people on view for an excessive 136 minutes are, for the most part, compulsively disputatious and often very funny. The “king” in question is Davidson’s Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old, heavily tatted lay-about who lives with mom Margie (Marissa Tomei) and sister Claire (Maude Apatow, the director’s 22-year-old daughter) in a cramped suburban-style house. Fireman Dad died on the job on 9/11.
Scott’s ambitions soar no higher than becoming an apprentice at a tattoo parlor; any thoughts of going to college are quashed by an old guy who warns him that Jimmy Hoffa, Bill Cosby and Donald Trump, among others, all partook of higher education. It takes a little getting used to Scott; none-too-bright, he’s a slob, almost always contrary or uncooperative, has an excuse for everything and dares to profess no ambition. When he admits that, “I think I’m just stupid,” one can think of no reason not to agree, although he does emit a certain sweetness that bubbles up through the cracks every now and then. And he does make his sort-of girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley) happy in the sack.
Satisfaction of that nature has not been the case for Margie for 17 years until she meets Ray (Bill Burr), a lively straight-shooter who is—what else?—a fireman. Combustion between them is such that it’s soon suggested that Scott should move out and get his own place, triggering a reaction from him perfectly appropriate to 12-year-old. When the young man later loudly and proudly proclaims, “We are the millennials!,” you fear for the future of the very world.
This crisis does serve to switch the film’s momentum from first to second gear, but Apatow shows little concern for picking up the pace; reveling in characters’ reactions to the succession of spitballs life relentlessly aims at them seems to please the director more than anything. Dominating all are passages that exist mainly to provide the characters (and actors) an excuse to react in a variety of squirmy, embarrassing, uncomfortable, misguided and downright idiotic ways to events they—often misguidedly—wade into neck-deep.
Among these mini-set pieces are a botched tattooing job and, more consequentially, a thoroughly idiotic nocturnal robbery of a drugstore that finally forces a smidgen of life reckoning upon Scott. Facing life’s realities is not something that comes naturally or remotely comfortably to this full-grown little kid, and the film is not so corny as to have him suddenly see the light. Well, he does, but not without heavy squinting.
As many comically-minded creators do, Apatow likes to put his characters in awkward elemental situations, watch them stew, then stir the pot himself as needed; any number of scenes could be compactly described as situation comedy set-pieces. Davidson gets the brunt of this but proves fully up to the task as his character’s life begins spinning more quickly while drawing ever-closer to the drain.
A big challenge in improv, however, is knowing how to accelerate toward an ending and wrap things up before it all turns into too much of a good thing, and it’s here that Apatow has failed to be ruthless enough; Staten Island would have been better in all respects with 20-25 minutes removed, footage that could then conveniently packaged with other extras. On the other hand, with a theatrical release being forcibly bypassed by Universal due to the enduring pandemic that has kept theaters closed, viewers’ ability to pause the action and dip in and out of the film will minimize the importance of the extended running time.
As obnoxious, ill-mannered and downright stupid as the central character is, Davidson holds the screen in strong enough fashion to suggest good potential going forward. Tomei surges back to top feisty form here, and especially fine is Powley as a young woman trying to order her priorities.
The King of Staten Island was meant to have had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Festival in March, followed by a New York bow at Tribeca. It most certainly would have brought down the house on both occasions.