'The King of Staten Island' Presides Over Self-Pity
Judd Apatow's latest arrested development comedy, The King of Staten Island, is short on laughs and long on running time.
Judd Apatow has built a comedy empire on the backs of overgrown man-babies who can't get their shit together. He struck box office gold with improv-heavy powerhouses like Knocked Up (2007) and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), and tackles similar themes of arrested development with his latest film, The King of Staten Island.
The difference between this and previous Apatow efforts is a serious lack of funny to balance the flab. Sugary feel-good nonsense litters this interminable tale of a directionless 20something who lost his father as a child and now spews his self-hatred on everyone around him. Lesser Apatow, and lesser Apatow, is damn near unwatchable.
Never renowned for his directorial restraint, Apatow relies heavily upon the likeability and improvisational skills of his actors (such as frequent collaborators Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen) to overcome clunky plots and bloated running times. The problem is that his latest leading man, Saturday Night Live stalwart Pete Davidson, is not ready for prime time.
Davidson's smarmy self-importance and incessant mugging for the camera are an immediate turnoff. It doesn't help that he also resembles Don Knotts' animated fish character from The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964).
Davidson stars as Scott, a 24-year-old basement dweller whose emotional development seemingly halted when his father, a heroic Staten Island firefighter, perished in the line of duty 17 years prior. He lives with his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei), who has suffered not only the loss of her husband, but 17 years of Scott's subsequent bullshit. He lashes out at anyone who expresses concern for him, including his college-bound younger sister (Maude Apatow), whom he terrifies by confiding that he will "probably hurt himself" after she leaves home. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.
But Scott isn't all bad. Sometimes he smokes pot with his buddies and practices his tattoo artistry on their backs. Most of the big laughs in The King of Staten Island come courtesy of sight gags involving Scott's "inconsistent" tattoo stylings. A haunting Barack Obama tattoo that defies description is a particular highlight. Scott's big dream is to one day open a restaurant where patrons can watch people getting tattoos. The name of the restaurant? Ruby Tattoosdays, of course.
The film's inspired bits all reside in the first hour; a shortcoming made all the more painful by an epic 2:15 running time. After that first hour, Apatow's script, which he co-wrote with Davidson (Davidson's father was a New York City firefighter who perished at the World Trade Center on September 11), flies completely off the tracks. We get subplots about Scott's basement buddies planning a pharmacy robbery, Margie's tentative romance with another Staten Island fireman (Bill Burr), and Scott's callous refusal to acknowledge his feelings for his favorite Friend-with-Benefits (Bel Powley as "Kelsey").
No doubt, Davidson has much to say about the horror of losing your father as a child, as well as the unfair expectations created by following in a fallen hero's footsteps. The pain he lends to Scott is undeniably believable. The problem is that Scott's legitimate pain is quelled in the most cloying, unsatisfying ways possible. You can feel your stomach churning, for instance, when Scott befriends two Elementary School children in order to learn the importance of personal responsibility. And just in case you didn't recognize the big emotional crescendo, we get a raucous singalong to The Wallflowers' "One Headlight" with a bunch of firefighters.
Apatow isn't the first filmmaker to take emotional shortcuts, but this laziness is inexcusable, given Davidson's familiarity with the subject matter. As you watch this unbearable slog unfold with predictable results, your mind becomes preoccupied with questions. Was there no way to streamline this story into an emotionally affecting journey of self-discovery? Did Scott need to be so hateful to everyone in his life? When was the last time I laughed?
There are, thankfully, a few performances that ease the pain. It's always nice to see Bill Burr in a movie. Burr has comedy in his genes, allowing him to ping effortlessly between sarcasm, sincerity, and pure caustic annihilation of his opponents. He and Tomei share gentle on-screen chemistry that makes for a welcome if unnecessary diversion from Scott's moping. Steve Buscemi is overqualified for his bit part as Burr's firefighter buddy, but he delivers the type of honest portrayal you've come to expect from this great character actor.
Perhaps the biggest strike against The King of Staten Island is the unfortunate timing of its release. It's difficult to care about Scott's self-pitty when the world is imploding around us. This is the time for filmmakers to tell impassioned, confrontational stories that aren't afraid to acknowledge an absence of easy answers.
Of course, Apatow completed this film months before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd -- and all the pain that ignited -- were forefront in the minds of Americans, but the grumblings of filmgoers' discontent have been audible for years now. Give us stories with emotional resonance and truth, not tired tropes designed to make us feel artificially happy. It's time to leave the basement, boys.
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