The King of Staten Island: Another Apatow Archetype
Some filmmakers grow and evolve their work. Some, like Judd Apatow, stick to their guns. It seems to work for Apatow for the most part. Though I personally believe he’s a better producer than director with producing credits on Superbad, The Big Sick, Bridesmaids, Pineapple Express, and many other beloved comedies of the 21st century. His work as a director (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Trainwreck, Knocked Up, Funny People) is like a cookbook full of new, exciting recipes but he just keeps cooking the same one. Funny People is undoubtedly his best movie because it’s the closest he gets turning the page to a new recipe. Or maybe it was his best movie. The King of Staten Island now exists. And while it’s just as formulaic and flawed as Apatow’s other work, that is forgiven by its tenderness and sincerity. It’s just as- if not more- moving than Funny People (another film where Adam Sandler proved long before Uncut Gems that he can act).
Apatow’s protagonists are always young and stunted, emotionally immature people stuck in a dramedy trying to find their way in life and figure out their future. Pete Davidson fits the mold here in The King of Staten Island just as Steve Carell did in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (hilarious), Seth Rogen in Knocked Up (one of Apatow’s best) and even Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (funny but no dramatic payoff). I’ve never been a huge fan of Apatow-directed films; I usually enjoy certain parts of his films rather than the whole yet that may be the case for many seeing that his films always go over two hours. But he needs his time and in some of his films, he’s earned the runtime. The King of Staten Island is a good example of this. I do like how he adds some flair and aesthetic with the cinematographers he hires. You can tell a comedy is an Apatow film just by the way it’s shot. Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Nightcrawler, Punch Drunk Love) captures Staten Island in this one with lighting to fit the humor and shadows to fit the darker drama.
The comedy (sub-par per usual Apatow but with some really funny bits here and there) is accentuated at the beginning before the growth and point of the story is more than accumulated at the end thanks to the bloated runtime. The opening however, is a strong start and rather dark before switching gears in the very next scene. Pete Davidson is Scott Carlin, a hopeless 24-year old living with his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei), smoking weed everyday, and suffering from mental illness and the trauma of losing his firefighting father at seven years old. It’s a semi-autobiographical story, obviously knowing all we know about Pete Davidson in real life. Davidson’s candor about his life struggles has been a part of his comedy his whole career whether it’s on SNL or his stand-ups. And also thanks to Ariana Grande, we know a little more about Pete Davidson than we’d like to know. Anyway, Apatow uses Davidson’s life and goofy disposition as his latest archetype in his standard story structure.
Scott hangs out with his languid stoner buddies, argues with his sister who only cares about him when it is convenient for her, and has no-strings-attached sex with his friend Kelsey (a terrific Bel Powley) while oblivious to her hints that she definitely wants the strings to be attached.
Scott incidentally finds his mom a new lover in Ray (comedian Bill Burr giving a good performance under that mustache) while almost giving Ray’s nine-year-old son a tattoo. Again, Scott isn’t the smartest guy and he’s not particularly good at anything, especially at giving tattoos and that’s what happens to be his dream: opening a tattoo restaurant called Tattuesdays, where you can eat food while getting a tattoo; a running joke in the film that is actually pretty amusing and fitting because it seems that having a creative mind in your early twenties is just trying so hard to be original you just end up with stupid ideas. Ray is another firefighter, so this and the fact that he haughtily berates Scott for tattooing a line on his kid enables Scott to feel immediate enmity for his mother’s new romantic relationship with Ray. This exacerbates Scott’s low self-esteem and life issues, causing paranoia and a rift with his mom.
Ray seems like a solid guy but the film never really gives a definite answer. He truly loves Margie but almost expediently, ostensibly using their relationship for her house and when Scott and Ray ultimately find common ground, the focus shifts completely to Scott’s evolution. Which is fine since Scott is our main character, but Ray’s limited arc only leads us to the fire station for Scott’s arc and the uncertainty about Ray leaves the viewer wondering if he was sincere and real the whole time or if he just learned how to be sincere and real at the end. We also have his ex-wife to thank for this, who Scott talks to for dirt on Ray so that he can split up Ray and his mother. Though it’s never answered whether what she says is true. Either way, Ray is quite the man at the end, especially for Margie. But is it still a facade? Who knows. Who cares I guess.
Now, the fire station is where we get a group of brave baby boomer firefighters drinking beer, playing cards, and trashing millennials. Jimmy Tatro (subdued, genuine and mustachioed like you’ve never seen him before; he’s right up there with Pete Davidson as one of America’s most lovable douchebags) is one of those millennials. “Hey I’m a man and I have feelings,” he says. The older men groan in response. I mention this because this ties into yet another loose end and one of my few issues with the film. The opening scene clearly portrays the mania in Scott's mind while he even mentions his use of antidepressants in another early scene. The message of the film is clear in the end and Scott does “get his shit together” as he says so often while finding redemption, motivation, clarity about his father, some empathy and even love. This is great until you realize that the mental illness asides were just that: asides. There’s no mention of that at the end. Scott’s future may be a little better and he’s finding his footing yet the fact that he explicitly tells his sister that she should worry about him, that he might hurt himself, and he tells Kelsey about his mental problems is all just forgotten because he learned about hard work.
Those things don’t just go away because life gets better externally. That’s why that throwaway line from Tatro, so quickly flagged away by the group of older men, is just as relevant as the forgotten mental illness theme. There’s a theme in this movie somewhere about the generational disconnect and its effects on the young mind. But it’s too busy paying respects to these brave older men, which is awesome and great, including a scene where Scott joins them to watch them save lives from a burning building. It works, it’s a powerful scene. Sure, the music from Explosions in the Sky helps (Friday Night Lights called, they want their music back), but it’s one of the most touching moments in the film. There’s a message somewhere in here about the mindsets of older people and younger people and the conflict that arises from that. Hard work is still a good thing, ambition is still a must, and learning and respect and love should still be pursued. But those things are hard to even begin having when mental illness weighs you down. It’s an ailment that cannot just be forgotten or toughed out. And it's the one important thing that is not addressed by the end of the film.
One of the funniest scenes involves Ray trying to get along with Scott. He tells him he has Yankees tickets, Scott is impressed until he realizes he’s talking about the Staten Island Yankees. “They play harder in the minors,” is the most baby boomer line I’ve ever heard. It’s hilarious and perfect. To make matters worse, he’s a Red Sox fan living in Staten Island.
Despite its flaws and miscues, The King of Staten Island is a meandering yet enjoyable time. There’s enough of both funny and moving scenes to keep you going but don’t expect an overwhelming cathartic reaction. However, it could have used a little more Steve Buscemi. We always need more Steve Buscemi. Pete Davidson’s range as an actor includes smoking weed and wearing his real life wardrobe but he makes a decent leading man as himself; supporting roles are much more his style it seems (see the delightful Big Time Adolescence from earlier this year on Hulu).
Bookended by two Kid Cudi songs, a stellar final shot, and a contribution to Pete Davidson’s heroic late father, The King of Staten Island makes Davidson’s place in the world known while earning its place as Judd Apatow’s best film since Funny People. Brooklyn be damned, Staten Island is the place to be.