At this point, a new Judd Apatow movie means a film working to balance humor with pathos, while pushing the limits of its story via a lengthy runtime. For a comedy, The King of Staten Island is most certainly another Apatow feature requiring the viewer to determine whether or not 2+ hours were essential. As it stands, however, while ‘Staten Island’ does take its time, there is a lot to like about this salt-of-the-earth city and the characters from this film who reside there.
Part of what has affected the various Apatow films, and even some of the ones he has had an influence on as a producer, is the choice to make them semi-autobiographical. ‘Staten Island’ is no different. Much like Apatow’s previous narrative feature, Trainwreck, while not personal to him, he’s working with a younger stand-up to push some ideas based around another’s life. In this case, Pete Davidson stars in the movie as Scott, a guy in his mid-20s with no ambition, and still grapples with the death of his firefighter father, who’s been gone since Scott was seven.
While Davidson has enough genuine talent to have gotten himself a position on Saturday Night Live for the past several years, his real-life issues have been no secret. His father really was a firefighter and first-responder who died as a result of the events of 9/11. Davidson has problems related to borderline personality disorder, and also suffers from Crohn’s disease, which is reflected in the film. He also has over 40 tattoos, which are prominently displayed in ‘Staten Island’ and factors into the plot.
For the film, regardless of how much Davidson is putting himself into Scott (he has stated there’s not too much separation), the performance is effective because of how honest it feels. While there’s a divergence in the lives of the fictional character and the performer, the success comes from seeing some form of transformation over the course of the film. The only real issue is the small scale of things when considering how big of a movie this seems to be.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a shaggy feature that is fine letting the viewer hang out with the characters for a while before pushing towards story momentum and finding a resolution. As Apatow has clearly taken influence from James L. Brooks, among others, I can see the fondness he has for playing around with his characters. At the same time, there are aspects of ‘Staten Island’ that feel more like interludes for the sake of having them, without adding much value to the film beyond extended laughs.
This is a long way of saying the movie almost matches the low-on-ambition drive of Scott throughout the film. There’s a sense of aimlessness for a while, before Apatow and co-writers Davidson, and Dave Sirus really decide to start making any forward momentum with the story being told. There’s an argument to be made that it’s all the more fulfilling to see where these characters end up, based on having the film be so front-loaded with an all-encompassing look at them. At the same time, fewer hijinks with Scott and his friends would have been a benefit to tightening up this feature.
All of this in mind, it’s hard to complain about the veteran actors and comedians who play pivotal roles here (and all with Staten Island accents, no less). Marisa Tomei is Margie, Scott’s mother and an ER nurse, who puts up with her son quite well, but is exhausted. Bill Burr is Ray, a hot-tempered firefighter who gets into it with Scott due to a tattoo incident with Ray’s very young son, only to eventually start going out with his mother. And then there’s Steve Buscemi coming in as Papa, a veteran firefighter (as he is in real life), who works at Ray’s station and knows a thing or two about Scott’s dad.
The arc of ‘Staten Island’ is nothing all that surprising. Scott has to come to terms with the loss of his father, as well as push himself to do more with his life, whether it is seriously pursuing becoming a tattoo artist, being involved more with the firefighter community he’s a part of, or whatever else. The film takes a long time to get there, but it’s not short on the laughs and the amount of heart required.
Assisting in this journey, along with the older actors, is Maude Apatow as his sister, Claire, who is the most upfront with Scott about things, but also heading off to college. There’s also Bel Powley as Kelsey, his childhood friend who he’s been seeing in secret. And it really wouldn’t be true to Davidson if he didn’t have a group of friends he smoked weed with, so this set includes Oscar (Ricky Velez), Igor (Moises), and Richie (Lou Wilson).
The ensemble allows Davidson to play off of other actors in different ways to ideally give the young comic a chance to shine. Fortunately, Staten Island does work well in showing off the various layers of Davidson. Understandably, as a comic, he has a brand that doesn’t necessarily appeal to everyone. I find him humorous enough in a stand-up setting, but there’s a performative component to what he brings to pre-filmed sketches on Saturday Night Live that transfers well to a feature. It’s basically an inherent likability that was previously showcased in Big Time Adolescence and is at the forefront here. There’s just something about the energy of how Davidson plays a well-meaning screw-up that works for him.
Does this mean Davidson is transcendent as a comedic actor in feature films? I wouldn’t go that far. ‘Staten Island is a bit too busy and messy in its screenplay to make that case. However, Davidson, along with Tomei, Buscemi, Powley, and the always hilarious Burr, makes a good case for why this comedic character study is worthwhile. Apatow also ably brings what’s needed from a directorial standpoint, thanks to help from cinematographer Robert Elswit, even if the film meanders too much.
It’s not too long to not enjoy though. Running time issues aside, there’s value in The King of Staten Island. It’s a well-meaning film that allows a young man a chance to share his story filtered through an entertaining series of events that push the comedy buttons pretty well. That it also has a good amount of heart goes a long way to helping the film earn the royal status it wants to hold, as far as ruling over New York’s smallest borough.