Watching “The King of Staten Island” is like staying up way too late with intoxicated friends treating a nonsense conversation as if it was profound. Except, instead of your friends, it’s a group of unlikable and frustrating strangers.
Judd Apatow’s newest film, which is one of the early major films to release straight-to-streaming on demand, meanders through a plot as aimless as its central character. The film follows Scott, a 24-year-old high school drop out played by SNL castmember Pete Davidson. He wastes his days smoking weed in his mother’s basement and drawing terrible tattoos on his friends, as he is still grappling with the death of his firefighter father when he was seven.
The movie isn’t particularly narratively satisfying, as Scott’s descent to rock bottom before getting his life somewhat together is shown through a random set of events with limited connection. One such instance is a failed pharmacy heist which comes out of nowhere and leads to very little. With a dragging runtime of 2 hours and 17 minutes, some of these tangents could easily be stripped away to create an increasingly streamlined narrative.
A talent of Judd Apatow shown across his comedic filmography is his ability to heighten everyday dialogue to render it interesting and funny. Relying on both the strength of his cast and stellar joke writing, realistic and normal conversations are usually elevated into comedic gold.
The problem with Apatow and Davidson’s writing is that it isn’t very funny. Every once in a while there’s a good joke, but for the most part, the dialogue is hyper-realistic. The random musings of stoners, arguments between siblings, and awkward post-coital DTRs don’t make for compelling conversation in real life, much less film dialogue.
The film borrows the mumblecore aesthetic (hyper-realistic, non-plot driven movies like “Drinking Buddies” and “Your Sister’s Sister”) without the art or compelling characters that make the style work.
The film is disappointingly deficient in comparison to Apatow’s older work. He is a uniquely talented director in terms of creating bro comedies with crude humor that always managed to land on the right side of the line between funny and tasteless.
There is a clear patter that could be made through “The King of Staten Island,” “Trainwreck,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and “Knocked Up,” which each centered around one comedian and utilized his or her style and persona. However, each of those films are far more directly comedic than this film’s dramedy tone.
The clearer analogue would be the film “Funny People,” starring Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen in rare but excellent dramatic turns. The movie is less discussed than the others in Apatow’s filmography due to the more serious tone and dramatic stakes. However, with a clearer story and better acting, “Funny People” is a more mature film than “Staten Island.”
There are certainly aspects of the film which work excellently. The scenes with Scott’s long-suffering mother Margie (a perfectly-cast Marissa Tomei) ground the film nicely with consistent humor. Watching Margie navigate her first serious relationship since her husband’s death 17 years earlier is both comedically engaging and dramatically compelling. The tensions of her new boyfriend Ray (Bill Burr) being a firefighter, the same job held by her late husband, adds an added layer of emotional resonance.
The scenes between Ray’s two children and Scott likewise are charming and effective. The heartwarming and comedic sensibilities play nicely together as we watch the two families bond and Scott forced to be responsible. The children are likable and specific, turning scenes which could have been tedious or obnoxious into a warm and moving subplot.
For all of the crude humor, frank talk of sex, and prolific pot smoking, the film has a surprising amount of heart. Apatow has been accused in the past of having a morally conservative (not political, as he is a staunch liberal) bent to his films, and the family-oriented message of “The King of Staten Island” clearly demonstrates this.
“Knocked Up” shows the positive changes that parenthood brings to its central characters. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” highlight ends with Steve Carell losing his virginity to a woman he truly loves, showing sex and virginity to be something that should be meaningful and important. The central hard-partying, commitment-phobe in “Trainwreck” ends by accepting monogamy and commitment.
The key to Scott’s coming of age and maturity is found in family, community, and personal responsibility. The aspirational happy ending presented to Scott is to stop doing drugs, get a job, engage with a community, and commit to a relationship his friend-with-benefits, Kelsey (Bel Powley).
While the messages presented are important, especially for aimless and increasingly non-relationship minded young people, it isn’t given enough time to let the message sink in. For so long a film, many of the various subplots feel shockingly rushed. The script wastes too much time on extended unfunny scenes of Scott wasting time with his friends, which add little to the story or character development, taking time away from far more important stories.
It can be difficult to care about Scott and Kelsey’s relationship when the few scenes we see of them together highlight why they shouldn’t be together. Their lack of chemistry and contrasting values make a better case for the pair calling off their non-relationship and her finding someone more driven, than for a romantic resolution.
While there are many other important characters with varying degrees of interest, the film rests squarely on Pete Davidson’s shoulders. Davidson has consistently been one of the weaker aspects of an already weak few seasons of “Saturday Night Live,” with his best sketches relying on him as a non-emoting straight man to offset the host’s comedic performance, as shown in the Chad sketches and Teacher Trial (one of my favorite recent sketches).
In the first few minutes of “The King of Staten Island,” Davidson showed more range, emotion, and talent than in six seasons of SNL. That being said, his comedic style did not translate great to a feature length film, with many long sequences of attempted humor producing few jokes that actually land. He still definitely has potential as a comedic actor, but he’s not quite there yet.
Marisa Tomei gives easily the strongest performance in the film. She imbues her character with impressive vulnerability and strength, while simultaneously nailing her more comedic moments with expert timing. She and Bill Burr had nice chemistry, both romantic and comedic, which made their fledgling romance sympathetic, believable, and entertaining.
Maude Apatow played the periphery role of Scott’s sister with such realism and humanity that viewers cannot help but wish she had more screen time and development. Maude has been fantastic and criminally underused in “Hollywood” and “Euphoria,” playing the down-to-earth foil to the troubled and self-destructive characters around her. I’m looking forward to seeing what is next for the actress.
“The King of Staten Island” definitely has its moments, but is a messy and flawed film. Too many long stretches of unfunny scenes and meandering subplots take away from the genuinely funny jokes and interesting stories populated throughout the film.