Judd Apatow has made his share of overlong movies, but none as languorously paced as his latest comedy of delayed adulthood and life crisis, The King Of Staten Island. The familiar Apatovian values (male friendship, commitment-phobia, stoned bliss, occasional raunch) are present; the dependable qualities aren’t. The humor often falls flat, and however affectionate the movie may be as a depiction of New York’s least populous and glamorous borough, its capacity to sustain one’s interest depends by and large on the intermittently fidgety, bug-eyed screen presence of Saturday Night Live cast member and stand-up Pete Davidson, who co-wrote the apparently semi-autobiographical script.
Davidson plays Scott Carlin, a tattooed 24-year-old slacker who still lives with his mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei), and hero-worships his dad, a firefighter who perished on the job when Scott was 7 years old. Scott has no intention of leaving Staten Island for trendier climes; if it was good enough for Wu-Tang Clan (local heroes he reps in both T-shirt and tattoo form), it’s good enough for him. His personal life consists of getting stoned, hanging out with his small-time drug dealer buddies in a basement, and occasionally hooking up with his close friend Kelsey (Bel Powley), whose attempts to make something more of the relationship he shrugs off. His only ambition is to become a tattoo artist, despite a conspicuous lack of ability.
Here one does have to give Apatow some credit for growth, as this is as close to working-class portraiture as any of his directorial efforts have gotten. But if the instinct to make something more like drama out of his indulgent handling of actors has been evident since at least as far back as Funny People, the substance just isn’t there. There is of course the requisite reality check, which comes when Scott’s mother starts dating Ray (Bill Burr), a divorced father of two who has a Lorax-type mustache and an unconditional love for the local minor-league team, the Staten Island Yankees. Scott doesn’t like the guy because he happens to be a firefighter (and an infinitely uncool one at that), which to Scott is nothing less than an affront to his father’s memory. But we know that Ray is actually a decent guy, because he tolerates spending time with someone as antagonistic as Scott, if only at first.
Do these men eventually come to blows? Naturally. Do they come to see eye-to-eye after a time? Sure. Does Scott eventually grow up? Kind of. Relatively late in the film, Scott finds himself having to move into Ray’s firehouse (because he has nowhere else to go) in exchange for menial labor. There, he bonds with the guys, who are led by senior firefighter Papa (Steve Buscemi, a former firefighter in real life). That Scott doesn’t unexpectedly decide to follow in his father’s footsteps at least means that Apatow is trying to sidestep the cheaply obvious. But the fact that The King Of Staten Island ends at the exact moment when Scott might begin to experience personal growth still feels like a cheat.
Admittedly, the subject matter is marginally darker and more personal than the Apatow norm. (The movie is dedicated to Davidson’s father, a New York firefighter who died on 9/11.) But its references to depression, manic behavior, and suicidal ideation feel shallow in a film that largely follows a conventional comedy arc, albeit at snooze-button speed. Apatow’s Woody Allen-esque habit of hiring overqualified or artsy cinematographers (in this case Robert Elswit, who won an Oscar for There Will Be Blood) to enliven his stiff staging has rarely yielded fewer dividends; whereas in Funny People, Janusz Kamiński’s active lighting and camerawork managed to inject energy into the usual Apatow scenes of shared living space, The King Of Staten Island mostly looks unengagingly competent.
Apatow’s last comedy, Trainwreck, was also designed as a vehicle for a sketch and stand-up comedian, but it had the good sense to give Amy Schumer’s limited persona a superior foil in the form of Bill Hader. While Tomei, Powely, and Burr all do fine work, they are playing more or less straight roles opposite Davidson, whose performance can err on the side of shtick. There was a time when Apatow, as both a director of his own movies and a producer of others, could make unlikely stars out of young actors like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill. But the jokey riffs here lack the specificity of his funniest work. The traded insults are weak, and an extended sequence in which Scott goes to visit his younger sister, Claire (Maude Apatow, the director’s daughter), at her college devolves into a series of skit-show dorm-room caricatures.
That isn’t to say that The King Of Staten Island’s bloated running time doesn’t have its better moments. Scott’s buddies (played by Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson, and Moisés Arias) are well-cast, if given little to do; there are funny detours involving a family friend (a Walken-esque Kevin Corrigan) who hires Scott to work at his restaurant, where the staff are forced to compete for their share of the tips in a weekly after-hours fight club; and a sequence in which Scott’s friends try to burglarize a pharmacy that suggests that Apatow should try his hand at visual comedy more often. But in a cast that features people who do comedy professionally, the only laugh-out-loud funny performance comes courtesy of the rapper Action Bronson, who has a small role as a wounded man who stumbles into the firehouse.
Whether that says more about the movie or Action Bronson (who was also funny in his bit role as a casket salesman in The Irishman) is an open question. Apatow appears to have moved on from using airless domestic and urban comforts as backdrops, and that’s probably a good thing. But The King Of Staten Island’s patience-testing failings, however well-intentioned, suggest that for now, he’s only found a new way to lose the plot.