Published Jun 09, 2020The format that a Judd Apatow comedy often takes is less that of a film and more a podcast, using a handful of loose, story-less scenes as an excuse for rising comedians to riff off of one another. Shaggy and meandering, these films have likely served as a launchpad for myriad comedy careers because of this informal method. We get to know these actors as they flex their comedic muscles through movies that jump from one elevator pitch-sized plot point to another over the course of run-times that occasionally encroach on the three-hour mark. As movies they're not very good, but as extended hangouts with funny people, there's nothing quite like them.
The difference between The King of Staten Island and Apatow's previous outings, however, is that no one involved in the film appears to be interested in landing any jokes or demonstrating any emotional vulnerability. As a result, the over-long outing often feels like a string of deleted scenes pieced together, each punctuated with knowing glances and dated, overly sarcastic "well that happened" reactions. It's in this joke-less void that some critics have suggested we find a sober dramedy about a man confronting his own personal demons and mental health issues. Perhaps the movie is more like a Magic Eye picture in this way — strain yourself hard enough, and some surprise image might appear.
Pete Davidson, who was a likeable underachiever on Saturday Night Live before being launched to distracting superstardom thanks to his real-life tabloid dalliances, attempts to mine personal pain for the film, though it may have been more poignant had he just played himself. Davidson's real-life firefighter father died in the September 11 attacks, and he's been open about his struggles with mental illness and Crohn's disease. Staten Island's Scott has similar personal struggles, though his firefighter father died in a less specific fire. Still, a 26-year-old named Pete playing a 24-year-old named Scott sees Davidson stretch his acting chops to a near-breaking point.
Scott's various maladies have made him a burden on his family, to the point where his sister Claire (Maude Apatow, who insisted that she auditioned for her role like every other actor despite her dad directing) is worried about going away to college because of the toll he might take on his widowed mother Margie (Marisa Tomei, underused in a familiar role that comes naturally to her). He spends most of his time playing video games and shooting the shit with a ragtag gang of stoners. (Side note: their early 2000s fashion sense and bro-y tough-guy dynamic make for a strange mix with Davidson's Scott, who has an affinity for wearing clothing from the uber-hip, nouveau Deadhead Instagram brand Online Ceramics.) They get into some serious hijinks that push the movie in one direction, and then Margie starts dating another firefighter (Bill Burr) who knew Scott's dad. He also has a friend with benefits in Bel Powley, and she seems to want to take things to the next level in the few scenes she's given.
If Mark Duplass directed 8 Mile, he'd come close to the truly bizarre tone of this film. But despite a series of potential wins, there is nothing in the dialogue or plot or story that suggests any sort of tangible personal growth. It's just Pete Davidson talking about how shitty his life is and discussing his mental health struggles without offering any real emotional vulnerability. Mental illness is an important aspect of life that deserves far more representation in media, but The King of Staten Island doesn't seem to know what to do with it, instead raising issues that it never seems to address.
Then, at the two-hour mark — during a completely random encounter with Action Bronson, of all people — some sort of switch flips and Pete decides that things aren't so bad after all just in time for the credits to roll (after another 15 minutes of wrapping it up). We know that things have turned around because he looks up at the New York City skyline and smiles.
Bronson isn't the only white rapper to appear in this comedy. There's also a snobby tattoo-shop owner, played with cringe-inducing exaggeration by Machine Gun Kelly. In his scene, Kelly oversells every line like it's a joke, but there are no punchlines. He's also tattooing a giant shirtless muscle man who has a prominent confederate flag on his pectoral muscle. So is Machine Gun Kelly a racist tattoo artist? This question, like nearly every other question posed by the film, is not answered. In fact, in the film's 137-minute runtime Apatow seems to forget that a massive group of characters have been imprisoned in a heist subplot that is barely revisited.
The King of Staten Island could have benefitted from an even darker ending or some different aesthetic choices or, most of all, if its runtime were chopped in half. Unfortunately, it's still shot with the bright artlessness of an Adam Sandler Netflix movie and its soundtrack is entirely devoid of curation, hopping from Kid Cudi songs to a string quartet version of Red Hot Chilli Peppers' "Scar Tissue" and concluding with some absolutely on-the-nose Explosions in the Sky. That familiar and once-welcome Apatow laziness is prevalent throughout, but it's paired with a try-hardness that makes the film entirely unbecoming. Thank God we didn't have to sit through it in theatres.