In recent years, Judd Apatow’s work as a director and a producer has taken on a decidedly more mature and bittersweet tone. His earlier days directing movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up presaged this, but hid their vulnerability beneath a thick haze of weed and sex jokes. Films like Funny People and This is 40 furthered the sensitivity and occasional melancholy suggested by Apatow’s TV work on The Larry Sanders Show and Freaks and Geeks. It’s taken some time, however, for that emotional core to come to the foreground in his movies.
It’s fitting, then, that The King of Staten Island, Apatow’s latest, feels like his most dramatically thoughtful work yet, while remaining true to star Pete Davidson’s stoner proclivities. It feels like a step forward for Apatow as a filmmaker, even as the film struggles to overcome the self-centered man-child characteristics that dogged his earlier work. Davidson is the least interesting character in a story based on his own life, but the strong supporting performances help lift the film over the hurdle he creates.
Inspired by Davidson’s own experience grieving his father, The King of Staten Island is less a comedy than a drama that produces an occasional laugh. Davidson plays Scott, a high school dropout who’s been in a state of arrested development since the death of his firefighter dad when he was a kid (Davidson was seven when his firefighter father died in the September 11th attacks).
Scott has dreams of becoming a tattoo artist, but spends most of his time getting high with his buddies and his sort of-girlfriend, Kelsey (Bel Powley), who’s waiting in vain for him to finally commit to their relationship. After his sister (Maude Apatow) heads to college, Scott’s mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei) starts dating again, quickly getting serious with divorced dad Ray (Bill Burr), also a fireman. This puts Scott into a tailspin, looking for ways to sabotage his mom’s new relationship.
Throughout his career, Davidson has been forthcoming about his own struggles with mental illness, and how strongly those struggles are tied to his father’s death. The King of Staten Island explores this as well, taking Scott’s mental health issues and their long-term impacts seriously. However, while the film ultimately holds Scott accountable for his own growth, that story is never as compelling as the ones going on around him. It often feels like Scott’s childish antics take attention away from more dynamic characters.
The most interesting of these B-plots is the one Scott is in direct conflict with: the relationship between Tomei’s Margie and Burr’s Ray. Tomei is great and complex as a woman who, after years of catering to others’ needs, is finally learning what she wants for herself and making others respect her desires for once. As Ray, Burr is prickly but endearing, and makes a genuine effort to get Margie’s kids to like him, even though he’s not always the best at showing it. Together, they’re a sweet, realistic couple, and their awkward, funny dates are The King of Staten Island’s best moments.
Powley is also a standout as Kelsey, who loves her hometown and wants to make it a better place, but risks getting stuck in a dead-end relationship with Scott. Part of Scott’s arc is, of course, getting his act together so he can be a supportive partner to Kelsey. That’s not nearly as powerful, however, as Kelsey’s drive to take a civil service test so she can go to work for the city. In both this storyline and Margie and Ray’s relationship, the characters are so well-defined that you’d much rather watch them just exist than follow Scott as he gets into trouble with his slacker pals.
The King of Staten Island contains echoes of working-class realism that feel charming and surprising coming from Apatow and Davidson. The film combines studio comedy beats with a sense of place and identity that feels more akin to a Mike Leigh movie. The end result is an interesting hybrid of stoner movie and kitchen-sink dramedy, but the film misjudges where its actual strengths lie. The King of Staten Island may be inspired by Davidson’s experiences, but the lives of the people around him are the ones worth watching.
“The King of Staten Island” is available today on demand.