If you have seen a comedy film in the last twenty years, Judd Apatow probably had something to do with it. He’s easily one of the most prolific comedic voices of the 21st century, and with films such as The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, and many more under his belt, he’s without question one of the most successful directors/producers of comedy films. Lately however, Apatow has seemingly shifted gears, going from making traditional comedies to more intimate character dramas that have comedic elements, often based off the lead actor’s life. He did it with funny man Kumail Nanjiani in 2017’s The Big Sick and he’s doing it again with his most recent film The King of Staten Island, this time starring SNL star Pete Davidson.
While the plot of The King of Staten Island is not nearly as accurate to Davidson’s life as The Big Sick was to Nanjiani’s, the film is still a loose adaptation of Davidson’s life. Davidson’s character, Scott, is a slacker in his mid-20’s whose father passed away while on the job as a fire fighter when Scott was very young, leaving him emotionally damaged; Davidson’s real life childhood was very similar, with his fire fighter father passing away during the September 11th attacks when Davidson was only 7. The plot is essentially a late coming-of-age story about Davidson’s character learning to grow up and take on responsibilities, both financial and emotional, and learning to let go of his father and move on with his life.
The plot is very cleverly written, and even though it follows a traditional coming-of-age arc, it still manages to be impactful by not shying away from the darker sides of Davidson’s character. Scott is often childish, selfish, and downright manipulative at times, and the film can show you his flaws while still making you relate to him. The film, while not as laugh-out-loud funny as Apatow’s earlier work, still has funny moments that go a long way in offsetting some of the more serious moments in the film, allowing it to tackle significant topics (death, mental health) without ever becoming too dour.
It does not hurt that all the performances are very well done. Apatow knows how to direct actors, and is not afraid to let them improvise lines, many of which end up being the funniest parts of his films. The three leads, Pete Davidson, Bill Burr, and Marisa Tomei, all turn in great performances. Burr’s character takes a little while to stand out, but really begins to shine by about the halfway point, and fans of him as a comedian will not be disappointed. This is without question the best performance Davidson’s ever had and shows off his potential as an actor. Marisa Tomei plays a very un-glamorous, un-Marisa Tomei role, but still shines in every scene she is in. The cast is rounded out with side characters that are also solidly performed, with known actors such as Steve Buscemi, to more unknown actors, to even Apatow’s own daughter, Maude, who stars as Scott’s little sister.
The story, while generally well-told, sagged a bit before the halfway point. A few scenes seemed a bit unnecessary, not really adding anything besides the odd joke or two or giving the audience any new information. Some more attention could have been given to the relationship between Scott and his childhood friend turned love interest. As it exists, it is mainly just a way to showcase Scott’s inability to grow up and doesn’t give the audience a great look at the chemistry between the two. Additionally, while Apatow shines as a director of actors, he has never been a particularly visual director. This has never been an issue, as his films have been mostly comedies, mainly focusing on dialogue and characters. As he is switched to making more dramatic films, however, his films might benefit from more visual flare. There is a scene towards the end of the film which, without giving away spoilers, is meant to be exciting and inspiring, but comes across as flat and uninteresting because of the minimalist way it was filmed. This is the most blatant instance, but the film could generally use a bit more attention to visuals as Apatow’s films become more dramatic.
Somewhat disappointing visuals aside and unnecessary scenes aside, this is still a strong film from Apatow. The performances are all well done, and the film is able to ride a rare line of showing serious issues in a person’s life while still making us sympathize with the character, and without letting the film become swamped in gloominess. The King of Staten Island is available on video on demand to rent, and if you’re a fan of Pete Davidson or simply a fan of well-made feel-good movies, this is certainly a quality choice.