By now, we all know Judd Apatow makes long movies. With the right script, premise and actors, however, you may find yourself having a great time basking in his universe. He takes his time, allows for breathing room, and essentially makes mumblecore movies on a large scale. Call it Jumbocore. With his latest, The King Of Staten Island, co-written by Pete Davidson and former SNL writer Dave Sirus, Apatow has combined the classic hangout movie with elements of romcom, family drama, and a lot of heart.
Davidson stars as Scott, an unemployed young man who lives with his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei),and younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow) in a modest Staten Island house, and spends most of his time in the basement playing video games and getting high with his friends. His father, a firefighter, died tragically when he was younger, and this contributes greatly to Scott’s suicidal ideation, which we see in the opening scene. On a good day, Scott seems quick to outbursts or worse, tuning out the world. Even the most casual fans of Davidson will recognize the autobiographical elements at play here.
Scott has vague dreams of opening a tattoo parlor/restaurant, which I’m sure sounded like a terrible idea when they wrote the script, but in light of our current situation, worsens exponentially. One fateful day, he attempts to ink a minor, which draws the ire of the kid’s father Ray (Bill Burr) to Scott’s door. Enraged and spitting bile at Margie, Ray, a local fireman, initiates undoubtedly what we’ll call a meet-not-so-cute. What little story this shaggy film possesses lies in the machinations which bring Scott to Ray’s firehouse to ostensibly learn to adopt a healthy work ethic and confront the demons from his past.
Of course, this being a Judd Apatow film, the story goes off on many tangents, including a visit to his resentful sister who has just left home for college. Scott has also been having a quiet fling with his lifelong friend Kelsey (the gifted Bel Powley from The Diary Of A Teenage Girl) and also gets involved in a pharmaceutical caper with his pals. Under normal circumstances, I would call it all a bit too much, but thanks to a screenplay which doesn’t try too hard to deliver constant zingers and an alive, honest, soulful performance by Davidson, I loved hanging out with these characters. Unlike Apatow’s previous work, this film, while often very funny, benefits from staying grounded in Scott’s mental health issues instead of insisting on a gag-a-minute pace. Davidson proves himself as an engaging, thoughtful, unpredictable actor who keeps you guessing his every move or reaction. It’s impossible not to love this “loser” because when he tries, he connects so beautifully with others. I especially loved his sweetness with Ray’s kids, holding their hands as he walks them to school and shows genuine interest in their lives.
National treasure, Tomei, also brings so much warmth and vitality to what could easily have turned into the stock Mom character. Smart, observant and nobody’s fool, Tomei milks one great scene after another for all they’re worth, especially when she dresses down Ray and Scott for fighting or when she hilariously refuses to take Scott back into her house. In my fan fiction version of the production, I imagined Powley approached Tomei to tell her she was basing her character on Tomei’s Oscar-winning My Cousin Vinny role. While not as broad, Powley’s Kelsey has that extra New Yawwwk oomph and spunk to ring similarly delightful bells. Burr, best known for his standup comedy, also makes a strong, vibrant showing as an angry guy who needs to be nicer to Scott if he wants to stand a chance with Margie. Steve Buscemi, in a small but effective role as the chief at Ray’s fire station, seems to exist to make us like Scott more, but that doesn’t take anything away from Buscemi, a former firefighter himself, from giving a relaxed, generous appearance.
What I love about Apatow’s work is his ability to mine the pain buried beneath the surface of comic actors. Steve Carell, Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer have all benefited from surrendering themselves to Apatow’s aesthetic. It also helps that Apatow has hired cinematographer Robert Elswit to give the film an unfussy but living, breathing look. Same goes for Kevin Thompson’s production design, which displays a keen awareness of what those Staten Island homes really look like.
While nothing earth-shattering, The King Of Staten Island moved me to tears, because it works so hard to welcome the Scotts of the world into the fold and to gently nudge them into finding their purpose. Scott bobs and weaves a lot, simultaneously sincere and diabolical at times. Witness the tattoo reveal on the back of one of our main characters for a specific example. Apatow doesn’t tie things up into a neat little bow at the end, preferring to end things abruptly but perfectly in tune with the rhythms of his sweet, slightly lost, yet ultimately beautiful main character.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic