If anyone knows arrested development, it’s Judd Apatow. As seen in comedy hits like Knocked Up and Trainwreck, he seems to have a soft spot for protagonists whose immaturity prohibit them from making that pesky transition into adulthood.
Apatow also has a knack for taking an up-and-coming comedian’s persona and crafting a star-making vehicle around it, as he did with Seth Rogen in Knocked Up and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck.
Pair these predilections and you have The King of Staten Island, Apatow’s latest heartfelt dramedy which is centered around the life of SNL bad boy Pete Davidson.
Davidson plays Scott, a disaffected twentysomething who spends his days in a drugged-out haze playing video games with his equally aimless friends in his mom Margie’s (Marisa Tomei) basement. Even though his world is moving in slow motion, things are changing around him quicker than he’d like. His sister Claire (Maude Apatow) is moving out to go to college, his secret girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley) wants to go public with their relationship, and Margie has found a new suitor in Ray (Bill Burr), a firefighter with two kids of his own. All of these forces conspire to compel Scott to address the issues that have kept him stuck for so long and to move into a more productive phase of his life.
Given their vast similarities, it’s difficult to tell exactly where Pete ends and Scott begins. They’re both New Yorkers with a dark sense of humor and a fondness for detailed tattoos. Davidson’s father (whose name, fittingly, was Scott) was a first responder who passed away as a result of the 9/11 attacks, while Staten Island’s Scott also lost his father in a firefighting accident. Both Pete and Scott also suffer from various physical and mental maladies from Crohn’s disease to borderline personality disorder, the latter of which led Pete to post several disturbing Instagram posts that led high-profile figures like his ex-fiancé Ariana Grande to express concern for his well-being.
The core issue with The King of Staten Island is that Apatow doesn’t expound on Pete’s troubled persona in a particularly meaningful or original manner. Throughout its bloated 136-minute runtime, the film insists that there’s more to Scott and his story than meets the eye but doesn’t stray far from the feel-good movie formula in doing so.
The best stretches of the film recall 2009’s Funny People and how Apatow was able to recontextualize the career of veteran comedian Adam Sandler, who Davidson has actually impersonated multiple times on SNL. The trouble is that Davidson isn’t nearly as well known now as Sandler was then. Unless you’re already acclimated to Davidson’s brand of slacker humor, it’s more likely that you’ll be put off by his antics as opposed to being drawn in by them.
Still, there is something compelling about Davidson from a dramatic standpoint and he does have moments of raw vulnerability that could lead to a more straight-laced acting career. In Sandler’s film debut Billy Madison, Roger Ebert said of Sandler that he’s “not an attractive screen presence” before revising his opinion when he went on to more successful serious roles down the road.
Perhaps Davidson will eventually find his own Punch Drunk Love or Uncut Gems. In the meantime, indulgent pap like The King of Staten Island won’t do him many favors.
Also streaming this weekend
On Netflix is Da 5 Bloods, the new Spike Lee joint about four African-American veterans who return to Vietnam to search for buried treasure and the remains of their fallen squad leader.
Available on Disney+ is Artemis Fowl, an adaptation of the popular young adult novel starring Ferdia Shaw and Josh Gad about a pre-teen genius who uses magical forces to search for his missing father.