Studio comedies have been on life support for years. It’s one of these movie-going tidbits you don’t even realize until it’s pointed out to you. In a theatrical landscape dominated by huge action spectacles and larger-than-life properties, the days of improv-laden hangout brofests have really taken a dive. No one really epitomizes that past trend more than Judd Apatow, who once built a comedic empire directing and producing some of the biggest critical smashes of the early to mid-2000s. From helping to develop the TV series Freaks & Geeks, to seeing films like Anchorman, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Walk Hard to fruition, to his own directorial work in hits like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, you couldn’t get away from Apatow even if you wanted to. He was basically a new era James L. Brooks in his own output, but also had a real knack from bringing brilliant talent like Paul Feig and Adam McKay further into the spotlight, too.
Right around the turn into the 2010s, audiences started to sour on Apatow’s brand of self-effacing and personally-reflective humor. His Adam Sandler-starring Funny People, while a little too long in the tooth, was unfairly rejected by audiences, and his follow-up, easily his most autobiographical film, This Is 40, worked on really no level at all. Since then, Apatow has been a quieter behind-the-scenes presence, and he re-emerged more recently as a purveyor of other comic performers’ own stories with his team-up with Amy Schumer (2015’s Trainwreck) landing in more appreciative territory critically, though you may be hard-pressed to remember he even directed it.
That trend continues on in Apatow’s latest, The King of Staten Island, which sees him partner with SNL alum Pete Davidson, a figure who is no stranger to headlines himself and has been an open book in terms of his struggles with substance abuse, his health, and the impact the early loss of his father in 9/11 has had on his path to adulthood. The film, which is co-written by Apatow, Davidson and Dave Sirus, takes those broad strokes and applies them to a premise that boils down to “What if Davidson had never become a comedian?”
The concept may sound a little self-indulgent on its face, and those viewers who may question their overall interest in Davidson’s life story may scoff, but The King of Staten Island plays — if not quite as successfully — in the same confessional comedic territory as The Big Sick (another Apatow production! Fancy that!). While its charms kind of come and go in waves, it’s a pleasant enough heart-warmer that has more than a few guffaw moments.
Davidson plays Scott, an aspiring tattoo-artist, who lives at home with his mother (Marissa Tomei) and a sister (Maude Apatow) who is headed off to college. Scott has been in a tailspin most of his life, stemming from his firefighter father’s death in the line of duty, and spends most of his time getting high with his pals, practicing his nascent (if amateurish) tattooing skills on them, and messing around with his sort-of girlfriend, Kelsey (Bel Powley). Basically, he’s going nowhere fast, with friends that are skirting the law, and no real career prospects of his own.
One day he makes the mistake of tattooing a precocious 10-year-old who gets a little too curious about what he and his friends are up to during a beach hangout. This leads to a doorstep confrontation that leads the boy’s father, another firefighter named Ray (Bill Burr), into a relationship with Margie, Scott’s mom. How Scott wrestles with this new figure in his life and the ties he has to his own father charts the course for much of the rest of the film.
The King of Staten Island, as one would expect, relies on Davidson’s on-camera talent to carry much of its narrative momentum. While no one will confuse him for Laurence Olivier anytime soon, Davidson does have a breezy charm that affixes his personal connection to the material and engages throughout. Much of the first half of the film is built on smaller moments between its cast members that Davidson anchors, the sort of banter-laden scenes that Apatow has made his bread and butter. While there’s a hit-and-miss quality between these set-ups, they eventually add-up to a stronger overall picture once Scott’s larger internalized struggle takes more of a center stage beyond the usual “slacker-loser” stuff.
It’s a strange dichotomy, because as soon as Scott and Ray begin to get to know one another better, and Scott starts to come to better grips with his own loss in life, the film starts to morph away from the chatty Apatow formula and into something much more ordinary for this kind of picture, and yet, that’s where The King of Staten Island begins to circle its emotional beats far better. There’s a really lovely bit of genuine warmth between Scott and Ray that continues to grow, particularly when Scott is basically adopted by their little firefighter family (joined by the always welcomed Steve Buscemi, among others) and that earnest sort-of sense of belonging and purpose is hard to not want to wrap your arms around.
The King of Staten Island doesn’t break any new ground, though the fact that its shot by frequent Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator Robert Elswitt is of note for the cinephiles in the crowd. It’s a film whose plot mechanisms you can see coming a mile away, and in some ways follows the same path of a lot of Apatow “man-child learns his new direction in life” stories. But even a well-trod story can work depending upon the telling, and Davidson’s own personal footprint throughout keeps attentions relatively rapt. It’s the kind of soul-bearing filmmaking that’s at least worthy of a weekend view in your own home.
Bottom-line, it’s surely the best Apatow movie since Funny People, and maybe even since Knocked Up.