The King of Staten Island review: Judd Apatow’s latest favours melancholy and tension over comic set pieces

While it lacks the belly laughs of ‘Knocked Up’ or ‘Funny People’, this Pete Davidson comedy-drama is intriguingly resistant to the genre rulebook

Adam White
Wednesday 08 July 2020 17:17
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The King of Staten Island trailer

Dir: Judd Apatow. Starring: Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Steve Buscemi, Maude Apatow, Pamela Adlon. 15 cert, 137 mins

There was a time, only about a decade ago, when Judd Apatow was the biggest draw of the comedy movie world. The filmmaker and producer rose to fame with polarising slice-of-life tales – films like Knocked Up (2007), Funny People (2009) and Trainwreck (2015), enjoyably big on concept if plodding in execution. Runtimes were long, bongs were smoked, and they often starred some sprightly new comedian alongside Apatow’s real-life family (including wife Leslie Mann and daughter Maude). But the filmmaker and producer has declined in ubiquity in recent years, his tumble mirroring the plummeting returns of the genre as a whole.

Banished to streaming, its theatrical release abandoned due to coronavirus, The King of Staten Island bears all of Judd Apatow’s usual hallmarks. It’s 137 minutes, and feels every bit of it. There’s his daughter again, too, and the sprightly newcomer this time is actor and stand-up comic Pete Davidson, known for being one of the youngest ever cast members on US comedy institution Saturday Night Live. (Those unfamiliar with SNL will recognise him from the five minutes he was engaged to Ariana Grande.) Davidson co-wrote the script with Apatow and Dave Sirus, and together they’ve tapped into their mutual appeal – albeit never enough to make the film truly sing.

Unlike much of Apatow’s past work, which is largely set in California, The King of Staten Island is set on America’s east coast. The city of the title is a ferry ride over from Manhattan, the film set within its suburbs and wastelands, where its directionless teen inhabitants gather to smoke dope and talk about nothing. Davidson’s Scott is one of them: unemployed, with vague aspirations to become a tattoo artist, but happy to drift about with little purpose. He has a sort-of girlfriend, played by British actor Bel Powley, but clams up whenever she addresses his lack of commitment to whatever they have together. He’s also in constant battle with his own body, suffering from Crohn’s disease and depression, and still traumatised by the death of his firefighter father years before.

Scott is a thinly veiled version of Davidson, whose own firefighter father died in 9/11, and who has been open about his struggles with Crohn’s and his mental health. The blurring between fact and fiction is the film’s only real hook; it is otherwise comfortable in its unwieldiness. Marisa Tomei is characteristically empathetic and warm as Scott’s mother, who is making her first nervous steps out of singledom. Bill Burr is her love interest, a single dad whose personality clashes with Scott provides the film’s most overt drama. Elsewhere there is low-wattage criminality, talk of maybe going to college, Steve Buscemi as a kindly firefighter who knew Scott’s father, and a pair of precocious children with whom he connects.

More so than even Apatow’s most laborious work, this is a film that never stays in one place for too long. It distracts itself constantly, filling the screen with go-nowhere subplots or cast members granted little but half-hearted development. It also values long conversations and quiet gestures over belly-laughs, embracing melancholy and underlying tension over grand comic set pieces. Anyone with a particular affinity for Apatow’s work will likely be surprised by it. Not necessarily in a good way.

Still, there is something fascinating about the film’s refusal to bend to form. Scott is both adorable and unpleasant, his trajectory believably scattershot. Even by the film’s end, there is a lack of certainty about where he is headed or what the future holds – a realistic effect that makes Katherine Heigl taking home Seth Rogen in Knocked Up seem that much more of a Hollywood fantasy. Davidson is also brilliant. Much like Amy Schumer’s work in Trainwreck, it’s a performance that may well utilise every single one of the tricks at his disposal, his future movie prospects still a question mark. But with his marvellously sloppy face and soft aimlessness, he’s a pleasure to spend a couple of hours with.

The King of Staten Island will be available to rent at home from 12 June, via digital partners including Sky Store, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV and Google Play.

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