Judd Apatow has repeatedly claimed that he only found his calling in comedy when realising he could mine the mundanity of his life for inspiration. At first, it paid off handsomely; The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up are as enduring for their takes on the director’s own anxieties around dating and parenthood as they are for foul-mouthed jokes about tits feeling like bags of sand. But this “write about what you know” approach can only become navel-gazing with success, and by the time Apatow made This is 40, his brand of authentic studio comedy began to look more like a paean to first world problems.
A Slacker Comedy with Heart
Understanding that observational comedy only works if you’re not observing out of an LA mansion, he’s since shifted gears into building vehicles designed for some of comedy’s most polarising figures – which, quite naturally, has led him towards Pete Davidson. Loosely billed as a semi-autobiographical examination of how Davidson’s life would turn out if he didn’t become a comedian, The King of Staten Island is Apatow’s first film that isn’t burdened by the financial privileges of the characters onscreen.
Which is to say, it’s the first of his “slacker movies” that accurately captures a sense of feeling like a directionless burnout, whereas protagonists in his other films usually luck out due to ties to the entertainment industry. It’s the perfect vehicle for Davidson; self-aware to the more toxic aspects of his character, but coupled with a lowbrow charm that makes him strangely endearing nonetheless.
It’s just a shame that, like so many of Apatow’s films, you have to wade through seemingly endless tangents and subplots to get to the heart of this stunted coming of age movie. Apatow’s tendency to make low concept comedies run for epic lengths is beyond parody now – and by releasing what feels like an assembly cut, he does a disservice to the simple but effective character study buried within.
Scott (Davidson) is the average slacker you see in a Judd Apatow movie; he spends his days smoking weed with friends, evading any adult responsibilities even as he is in the midst of his 20’s. As his younger sister (Maude Apatow) heads to college, his mum (Marisa Tomei, in a thankless role) starts dating firefighter Ray (Bill Burr). As Scott’s dad, who died when he was 7, was a firefighter, he takes an immediate dislike to Ray – but soon comes to realise that his arrested development since his dad died needs to be confronted so he can move forward.
A Semi-autobiography that could have dug deeper
The film doesn’t shy away from addressing the bleaker aspects of Davidson’s life. In addition to his character being named after his own firefighter father, who passed away while serving as a first responder during 9/11, the film casually references Davidson’s depression and diagnosis with Crohn’s Disease – at one point, Scott acknowledges that he jokes about these things to “normalise” them for other people.
The normalisation of mental health and illness within a studio comedy is undoubtedly positive. But when the film’s opening ten minutes features a reference to Scott being unable to ejaculate because of his antidepressants, it’s not hard to wish the film was as incisive in exploring how depression impacts his life as it was brutally honest in acknowledging it, to add further depth beneath the abrasive persona.
The heart of the film is Scott recontextualising his relationship with his family as he becomes increasingly aware of the crossroads he’s arrived at in life. When it’s not juxtaposing him with his academically successful younger sister, or using his mum’s new boyfriend as a jumping-off point to examine his own lingering parental grief, then the film becomes every bit as directionless as the character is affectionately critiquing.
This is never more apparent than in the underwritten relationship between Scott and childhood best friend Kelsey (Bel Powley), which doesn’t factor into the overarching narrative, and never seems to be mentioned whenever Powley (who does the best with a thankless role) isn’t onscreen. When the payoff to this half-hearted “will they, won’t they” manifests itself in the third act, it’s perplexing that it’s afforded equal dramatic weight to the fully realised family drama elsewhere.
As with all Apatow films, the unnecessary bagginess of the finished product is partially redeemed by a fantastic ensemble cast. This is Davidson’s show, and Apatow manages to find something within his persona that makes him endearing to watch, articulating his shortcomings with a charm that’s absent from material he pens himself. But it would be lesser without the likes of Bill Burr (in a wonderfully slimy performance), or smaller appearances from the likes of Pamela Adlon and Steve Buscemi, the latter of whom gives dramatic weight when discussing his friendship with Scott’s father, which proves heartfelt despite the feeling of a piece with the film’s most lowbrow moments.
The King of Staten Island is, like all Apatow films, overlong and unfocused. But at the heart lies a surprisingly effective character study – and one that made me understand the appeal of Pete Davidson, which is no small feat.
The King of Staten Island is released worldwide on VOD on June 12, via Universal Pictures.
Watch The King of Staten Island
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