(from left) Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) and Papa (Steve Buscemi) in The King of Staten Island, directed by Judd Apatow.

The King of Staten Island Review – A Nice Drama with a Dash of Comedy

The blanket branding of Judd Apatow’s filmography as being 100% comedies works against viewers expectations, who may be led to believe from the poster that they’re sitting down for a laugh-a-minute affair featuring some of Hollywood’s finest comedians. Much of Apatow’s work skews more towards the work of James L Brooks than Mel Brooks, with films like This is 40 and Funny People showing Judd being more comfortable playing in the realm of drama more than comedy. Given the varied state of the modern Hollywood comedy, where relationships have become the foundation for biting humour in films like Game Night and Blockers, it’s understandable that many may approach a new Apatow film with mild apprehension. 

And sure, with his latest work, The King of Staten Island, viewers may wonder exactly why they should traipse down the path of watching another two-hour-plus flick about a white man having life problems. Especially given this one is stars ex-SNL castmate Pete Davidson in the lead, and is co-written from the tattooed stoner, loosely pulling from his own life. If Funny People missed the mark for the Sandler-phites out there, or This is 40 made you wonder whether privileged white folks in America have had it too good for too long, then this one isn’t going to change your mind.

But! For everyone else, well, you’ll be well served by an exceptionally comfortable film. Davidson stars as Scott, a twenty something stoner who lives at home with his mum, Margie (Marisa Tomei). His sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), is heading off to college, mildly terrified of the prospect of leaving Scott alone with their mum, and putting her at the whim of his unmedicated ADHD pressures and anxieties. 

Scott’s an atypical ‘arrested development’ man, with no major life goals other than starting a joint tattoo parlour-slash-restaurant, making a living by selling Xanax and weed to the youths of the suburbs. He’s found a comfort in his addiction, even though he no longer enjoys the taste of weed, smoking it just because it’s what he does with his friends as they hang out in a basement. Painfully aware of his limitations in life, Scott has come to the conclusion that there’s no point trying because he is what he’ll always be: a slacker stoner. 

Add on the way Scott hangs onto the grief created by the death of his father like a comfort blanket, and you’ve got a complex character brilliantly brought to life by Pete Davidson. When he was seven, Scott’s father died on the job as a fire fighter, and as such has hampered any chance of Margie living a life for herself because she’s always living in service of Scott. When the angry father of a kid Scott tattoo’s in the woods demands retribution for Scott’s actions, Margie meets a potential romantic conquest. Ray (Bill Burr) is a handlebar moustache wearing fire fighter, and has his own baggage to bare, all of which Margie is comfortable to help carry. She’s feeling loved and supported for the first time in almost two decades, all of which comes as an attack to Scott, who actively works to pull as many threads as possible to force his mum’s relationship to collapse. It’s obstinate and deliberately self-serving, with Scott working to preserve his easy lifestyle.

For the majority of The King of Staten Island, there’s a welcome array of chuckle-level comedy that filters through the narrative. There are precious few major guffaw inducing moments here, but that’s also not the point of Davidson’s narrative. He co-writes the script with Apatow and Dave Sirus, but it still feels like a wonderful autopsy of ones self, with Pete Davidson laying himself out for all to witness, failures and foibles and pimples and all. Apatow never directs the narrative like we should be celebrating Scott’s slacker nature, with characters routinely calling him out for his actions, and Davidson inhibiting the mirror-universe version of himself with a pathetic air. 

Yet, we never pity Scott, as he’s always a likeable guy, even when he’s making foolish life decisions. He wants all the comfort his life has, but does nothing to provide security for that comfort. While, if pushed, Scott may deny that he wants a handout, that’s really all he wants: a means to living the slacker life. At every point, the title rings in your mind, asking the question, is this guy really the King of Staten Island? A lord to many, a saint to none? 

Which raises the notion that a King is a failure if he doesn’t have a Queen by his side, and that’s where the MVP of the film appears, with Bel Powley’s exceptional turn as Scott’s sometimes girlfriend Kelsey. She pushes against him continually, asking him what this behind-closed-doors relationship is all about, yearning for a better Staten Island. 

In a moment that feels pulled from a 90’s Linklater film, Scott’s slacker crew sit in an abandoned basketball court, throwing knives at boards, lazing about until moved on to another place. Sure enough, a security guard arrives, motioning on the crew, at which they remark that the same man has been pushing them on for a decade. Nothing’s changed, and nothing is going to change. Kelsey sees a chance for opportunity, a revitalisation of a downtrodden part of New York, a borough abandoned by tourists, even as they use the famed Staten Island ferry. She has a dream of something grander, and has a hope that she can bring a better future for all here. Her optimism is the ballast the film requires, showing that she’s not a character beholden to Scott’s mawkishness, instead being a person earnestly living her own journey. As the film closes, Kelsey reminds Scott that her future is for herself, and that he’s welcome to join her on the journey, but won’t stand for his past behaviour and the way it’s dragged her down. 

Scott’s lack of vision is highlighted perpetually. When he visits Claire at college, he has a forty second dream of becoming a student, and then dispels that notion immediately. What hope is a dream if the path is non-existent? Scott has no vision to clear his own path, and that’s the biggest failing of this character. The scenes Scott and Kelsey share together are some of the finest in the film, bringing a hope and vitality to their story. Margie and Ray’s romance is cute too, with Marisa Tomei and Bill Burr having excellent chemistry. 

In its breadth, at 136 minutes long, The King of Staten Island feels like seven episodes of a miniseries played with interstitial credits removed. In a cinema this might feel exhaustive, but at home this would be an ideal ‘binge watch’-like viewing, with each twenty-minute block feeling like its own micro-episode. In fact, most of Apatow’s work feel like miniseries as movies, and it’s possible that viewers may be kinder to them if they were presented as such.

Across his filmography, Apatow has explored the evolution of the stoner-slacker, or rather, the men frozen in time, denying the need to grow and change. From Steve Carrell’s nerdy man-child in The 40 Year Old Virgin, to the chorus of pink-eyed stoners in Knocked Up, to Adam Sandler’s societally inept comedian in Funny People, or even Paul Rudd’s pathetic dad in This is 40, Apatow eagerly reflects himself in his films (even going so far as to cast his family in major roles), and utilises his films as a personal therapy of sorts. Maybe this is why they can feel so exhaustive at times, with Apatow struggling to find a moment to excise for brevity and distilled clarity. With a catalogue of films under his belt, it’s fascinating to see the variations of Apatow exposed on film, and will one day make for a curious exploration of a massively influential director. 

It’s understandable that this kind of privileged white-man self-assessment may be a little too on the nose for some, but if you’re on Apatow’s wavelength, then you’re getting much of the same here: a nice and neat effort, with Pete Davidson giving a comfortable and calming performance, and a supporting cast that fills out the seams to make up a pleasant experience. To call a film like The King of Staten Island ‘nice’ feels like faint praise, but in the current landscape, it’s exactly the kind of film that I wanted and needed, and it delivered (in spades) a mood of ease that I loved immersing myself in. Your mileage may vary, but if Apatow’s brand of drama (with a dash of comedy) gels with your mindset, then jump on in. 

Director: Judd Apatow

Cast: Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr

Writers: Pete Davidson, Judd Apatow, Dave Sirus

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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