Writer-comedian Pete Davidson is given the signature Apatow treatment and the jokes occur more organically than ever

Patrick Preziosi on Judd Apatow’s ‘The King of Staten Island’ (2020)

Amidst the glut of late ‘90s/early 2000s ensemble male-centric comedy, only writer-director Judd Apatow can really claim a “one for them, one for me” working policy. All the while he never delineated between the hormonal, pop-culture-obsessed jokes of the for-hire projects and the more ambitiously indulgent films such as, say, 2012’s This Is 40

Apatow hasn’t embraced farce wholeheartedly since the subsequent network television staple The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). Instead, he’s been adding wrinkles to the all-too-familiar manchild-in-crisis blueprint crystallised (or, to some, calcified) in that 2005 film, which has nudged his subsequent work into longer-form territory casually breaking the two-hour mark. Are the films in question deserving of such a purportedly patient approach? To Apatow, that seems largely beside the point. Jokes and pathos have a right to attempt a healthy commingling, even if success largely skews towards intervals of slapstick than it does any staying emotional impact.

So as the dick jokes and “surprise!” cameos proliferate throughout Funny People (2009) as much as they do Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) (which Apatow served on as a producer), the former at least ropes in an extra layer of preoccupation with celebrity, whether delivered with a more metacommentative bent. Or, as in the case with the director’s newest, The King of Staten Island, the earnest mining of one’s personal history. 

The 25-year-old Saturday Night Live upstart Pete Davidson has assumed the place of the male Apatow muse, previously occupied by the likes of Seth Rogen, Steve Carrell, and Adam Sandler. But instead of casting Davidson in the mould of Sandler’s terminally ill A-lister George Simmonds from Funny People, Apatow tells his actor’s own pre-fame story (as co-written by Davidson himself with Dave Sirus). In turn, The King of Staten Island plays as the director’s most comparatively observational film, its real-life analog furnishing a groundedness otherwise absent in his filmography. 

Davidson’s autobiography is a dichotomy of modest aspirations and brain-numbing mundanity that never manages to quell personal tragedy. His father, Scott, a New York City firefighter, perished on 9/11, and the expectedly traumatic event had a rippling effect on the then 7-year-old comedian’s life. The King of Staten Island wisely keeps this an external deciding factor, introducing Davidson’s character Scott Carlin 17 years after the fact, while still maintaining personal detail that any casual trip to Wikipedia would make easily apparent. There’s the self-medication with marijuana, the suffering of Crohn’s disease, and a foggy, depressive headspace inextricable from the untimely death of his father. 

Apatow has no qualms establishing Scott as one having difficulty managing mental illness, ensuring the references and admittances tossed about aren’t just nominal mentions. The wordless opening sees Scott driving on one of many Staten Island’s anonymous freeways, his quotidian act of turning up the radio growing more unnerving as he presses the gas further, and then closes his eyes, before opening them and just swerving out of the way of another roadway accident. Catching his breath and reapplying his seatbelt, he mutters “Sorry” to no one. 

Scott isn’t as preoccupied with closure as he is with distraction. He and his motley crew of layabouts (including Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson, and Moises Arias, all of whom contribute greatly to the convincingly calibrated group dynamic) do little more than bitch about living in New York City’s forgotten borough, smoke weed, and sell Xanax to neighbourhood kids out of Oscar’s (Velez) house. The dankness of the low-lit basements and the glaring midday light of Staten Island beach fronts where much of this bullshitting plays out are the scenes most befitting of There Will Be Blood (2007) cinematographer Robert Elswit’s fine-grained lighting, rendered unfortunately anonymous most elsewhere. 

Conversely, Scott’s sister, Claire (Maude Apatow, continuing the tradition of appearing in her father’s films)—too young to have the same attachment to their father and effectively moved on—is off to college, not being saddled with any of what plagues her brother daily, although nervous of what her absence could entail. There’s never a sense of true contentedness, but Scott’s near-constant defence mechanism of equally self-deprecating and combative humour can give the illusion of such, especially to his friends, who have a good handful of dead-dad jokes of their own in their repertoire.

Scott’s mother Angie (Marisa Tomei) is a lovingly genial presence, perhaps too understanding of her son’s own trauma to give him the obligatory push out the nest (that, and she works both as a school and emergency room nurse so her schedule is chockablock with other commitments). Although he drags his feet in bussing at a friend’s run-of-the-mill Italian-American eatery, it’s an initially ill-fated run-in involving a nine-year-old named Harold, a tattoo gun, and an understandably fuming father that brings upon a storm of responsibility Scott is less than accustomed to. 

Romance blooms between Angie and Harold’s father Ray (a walrus-moustachioed Bill Burr), which Scott is only intermittently pleased about. Happy that his mom’s getting “banged out” (his words), he also can’t reconcile Ray being a firefighter, just like his father was. Even as he grows closer with Ray’s two precocious kids of a previous parent, Scott—like any young person in the kind of family comedy The King of Staten Island is—takes any chance he can to wedge himself between the lovers, lest marriage comes next.  

This being a high-profile Apatow project, even the least committed viewer could ably predict Scott’s inevitable self-actualisation, the lack of concision notwithstanding. Innumerable scenes are ripe for excision in this 136-minute running project, and while Davidson’s performance maintains itself as a consistently generous point of access throughout, Apatow seems to be operating under a bastardisation of Truffaut’s “four ideas in one minute” maxim. Although The King of Staten Island keeps with its star’s own awkward gait as it unhurriedly ambles towards the finish line, it’s also a film which can’t break out from circling back on itself, reinstating pockets of conflict that retain little more than an air of finger-pointing, especially when Scott’s otherwise delinquent pals attempt to knock-off a local pharmacy. 

What walks back The King of Staten Island from the precipice of saccharine resolution is the redeeming decision to not have Scott discover any dormant skills. When a spat with Ray gets both men ejected from Angie’s home, Scott moves into the firehouse for a time, and—fulfilling any parent’s wish—gets a feel for structure and routine, without ever feeling like he should follow in his father’s footsteps. In keeping with Scott’s—and in turn, Davidson’s—own continuously developing maturation, punchlines are sublimated in everyday rhythms, the inherent crassness of an Apatow script feeling more a byproduct of the film’s subjects than of comedians swinging for the cheap seats. 

Likewise, the unwelcome habit of airdropping in random celebrities to play themselves have been left largely by the wayside (save for a late film Action Bronson appearance), and signature details are instead adopted as characteristics; Burr doesn’t even feign not being from Boston, and the inclusion of Steve Buscemi as a fire chief, once himself a firefighter, feels winking, but stops itself short at being an intrusive nudge. And as for Davidson, as evidenced by his surrounding film, he’s at his best when just playing himself. 

The King of Staten Island is available now on demand.

Patrick Preziosi

By Patrick Preziosi

Patrick Preziosi is a freelance critic from Brooklyn, NY. He’s written about film, music and literature for photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Metrograph Edition, Little White Lies, America Magazine, and Screen Slate.