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<i>The King Of Staten Island </i>reveals the limitations of the Judd Apatow star vehicle

The King Of Staten Island reveals the limitations of the Judd Apatow star vehicle

Pete Davidson has done six seasons on Saturday Night Live, so it’s not especially surprising that he’s getting a shot as the lead of a big-studio movie in The King Of Staten Island, which was originally slotted as one of the summer’s major mainstream comedies, before the coronavirus pandemic relocated it to VOD. At any given time in the show’s history, a figure like Davidson might have been awarded a film vehicle. What’s more notable is the kind of movie he’s starring in. This isn’t a feckless attempt to plug a popular SNL performer into a dopey timekiller, like, say, Dana Carvey’s Opportunity Knocks. It’s also not a too-soon spinoff for popular characters, like what A Night At The Roxbury tried to do for Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan. As unlikely as it might have seemed when he started at SNL, Pete Davidson’s first starring role in a studio movie is a 137-minute, semi-autobiographical dramedy. And that’s thanks largely to Judd Apatow, its director and cowriter.

Even before it had a title, the purpose of a collaboration between Apatow and Davidson seemed clear. The King Of Staten Island is supposed to do for Davidson what 40-Year-Old Virgin did for Steve Carell, Knocked Up did for Seth Rogen, and Trainwreck did for Amy Schumer. All of those movies took an essential element of a comedian’s persona, grounded it with a sense of conversational believability, and made it clear that their subjects could be genuine stars. Potential liabilities, like Carell’s age, Rogen’s lack of mainstream success, or Schumer’s raunchy sensibility, were flipped into strengths. In a broad sense, Staten Island performs this same magic for Pete Davidson. He’s a relatively young stand-up comedian who’s done best on SNL when playing himself, rather than exhibiting a virtuosic range. Yet the movie makes clearer than ever that he has screen presence, charisma, and an interest in both the comic and dramatic possibilities of his slacker-ish, self-aware-stoner persona. Apatow’s approach is a game-changer, both for individual careers and how these kinds of comic vehicles are assembled. At the same time, the new movie reveals limitations to the filmmaker’s approach, at least in terms of how it’s applied here.

As a body of work, Apatow’s four unabashed comedian star vehicles have a natural ebb and flow between progression and regression. The 40-Year-Old Virgin is about a guy trying to finally have sex for the first time; Knocked Up is about a guy whose unlikely one-night-stand has life-altering consequences; Trainwreck is about a woman whose commitment-averse lifestyle includes frequent one-night stands, including one that lands her in Staten Island; and now King Of Staten Island spins a whole story out of a guy stuck in New York’s least respected borough. It’s both the simplest and the darkest of Apatow’s comedic self-improvement narratives: Davidson’s Scott isn’t grappling with finding love after 40 (at least not for himself), or impending fatherhood, or committing to a floundering career (unless practicing hit-and-miss tattoos on his friends counts). Mostly, his stage of “figuring shit out,” as he’s wont to put it, is stuck somewhere around when or if to move out of his mom’s house. The movie opens with him more or less contemplating self-annihilation—and not in the cutesy manner of a comedy using suicide as a cheap, faux-shocking grabber.

Illustration for article titled iThe King Of Staten Island /ireveals the limitations of the Judd Apatow star vehicle
Photo: Universal Pictures

Davidson has confessed to real-life suicidal thoughts, and on his Weekend Update appearances, it can be thrilling to watch him confront his own demons with such openness, even mischievousness. (Recall him openly wishing that when Hurricane Sandy hit Staten Island, it had “finished the job.”) There are moments in King Of Staten Island that replicate that feeling of pressing on a bruise for comedic effect, skillfully teased out by Apatow. Sometimes it’s a throwaway moment, like when Scott loses out on a tattoo-art apprenticeship and proceeds to repeatedly insult an impossibly muscled customer, clearly putting himself in physical danger while making his insistence on doing so feel almost whimsical. Sometimes it’s more central to the story, as when Scott’s sister asks him if might hurt himself and he answers with disarming, almost maddening honesty. This discomfiting blend of laughs and sadness fits with Apatow’s growth behind the camera, too, as he’s made increasingly ambitious use of the ace cinematographers he hires to supply texture to his improv-heavy work. DPs like Staten Island’s Robert Elswit and Trainwreck’s Jody Lee Lipes utilize richer colors and shadows than seen in most studio comedies.

Apatow also utilizes more minutes than most studio comedies do, and Staten Island is one of his longest. That’s the main rap against his work so far, a complaint that’s become its own cliché: When his comedies crest the two-hour mark, they commit the monstrous sin of self-indulgence. Apatow once responded memorably to this criticism by complaining that audiences think nothing of an extended Netflix binge, but somehow chafe when asked to sit for 15 or 20 minutes longer than expected for a feature film. I’m inclined to agree; if Apatow’s films can be a little baggy, the idea that they’d be better at 94 minutes seems both terribly prescriptive and not particularly aware of his strengths as a filmmaker—in particular, his willingness to give a sense of his characters’ lives beyond the machinations of a comedy plot.

In this case, King Of Staten Island’s extended running time is more a symptom of a different problem entirely: Apatow’s small-c conservatism. He’s an outspoken liberal in real life, while his R-rated comedies nevertheless arc toward family, responsibility, and the putting away of childish bongs. The King Of Staten Island doesn’t adhere to a single, crucial family-endorsing plot point that will vex progressive-minded viewers, the way Knocked Up bothered some for not being a 20-minute movie about an abortion. (Admittedly, that would also please the strict running time fanatics.) Instead, the newer film is tangled up with as many family-endorsing plot points as possible, many of them baldly unnecessary and distracting. Despite diving into grief, trauma, and depression almost immediately—Scott, like Davidson, is the son of a firefighter killed on duty—the movie feels desperate to give its characters the stabilizing influence of family. Not only does Scott have the requisite too-good-for-him love interest with ambitions greater than his own (charmingly played by Bel Powley) and family members who want the best for him (Marisa Tomei, Maude Apatow), he also forges an unexpected connection with another firefighter (Bill Burr). And that firefighter’s entire engine company of irascible, loveable heroes. And that firefighter’s children—not one, but two school-aged kids for Davidson to bond with, first awkwardly, then sweetly.

Illustration for article titled iThe King Of Staten Island /ireveals the limitations of the Judd Apatow star vehicle
Photo: Universal Pictures

On a scene-by-scene basis, much of this is enjoyable, though often more amusing than hilarious. Taken together, the marathon of good, caring influences starts to feel oppressive—a big, squishy tribute to the healing powers of respecting your elders, forming surrogate families, growing up, and learning the value of hard work. What it doesn’t address, at least not meaningfully enough to set it apart from Apatow’s other work, is the mitigating factor of Scott’s mental health. To its credit, the movie offers no simple solutions to Scott’s baseline issues, any more than it invents a miracle cure for his Crohn’s disease (also borrowed from Davidson’s real life). Sometimes, though, it appears to be backing away entirely from the darkest corners of Scott’s head, lest it interfere with the life lessons he learns from bunking at a firehouse. This extended late-movie sequence feels like a kind of masculinity fantasy camp that Apatow never fully interrogates, especially when it obfuscates the question of whether Burr’s character really is all that great a guy.

The affection Apatow reserves for his characters is nothing new and usually part of his work’s charm. Here, he seems to hold certain chunks of his ensemble in an uncomfortable thrall. Virgin and Knocked Up have no trouble copping to the occasional toxicity of their dude-chorus supporting characters; in Staten Island, admitting that these firefighters have any flaws worse than partying a little hard seems to be beyond the pale. (Minor blessing: There are no cops on the scene.) Any sense of danger from the movie’s first half is gradually extinguished as Scott makes his requisite personal growth. Apatow has the restraint to end the movie with a couple of lovely, low-key scenes that don’t award Scott instant success and unconditional happiness—but maybe that’s because they don’t need to. The previous hour has already implied that Scott can be a better son, a harder-working (and more employable) man, a more considerate partner, and maybe even a nurturing father someday. Somehow a distinctive comic has become the Apatow hero of a thousand (or at least three or four) faces.

Apatow’s star-minting pipeline is all about this kind of domesticity, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. His explorations of how “funny” characters might navigate the rituals of adulthood unifies his work across a great variety of personalities. In addition to giving his characters the now-standard post-teen coming-of-age, Apatow also offers his comic stars something rarer: instant gravitas. Packing some real pathos into the narrative allows performers to immediately chase their comic breakthrough with more dramatic chops, the likes of which some past comedians had to wait years to unveil. Their characters grow up belatedly, and the performers get to grow up on screen right away. Davidson is obviously willing to go there, dramatically speaking, but as easy as it is to root for him, it’s strangely unsatisfying whenever The King Of Staten Island tries to give him something resembling a traditional win. His believability as a troubled young man makes the attempts at domestication, however small-scale, feel phonier than it ever did in Knocked Up or Trainwreck. Those movies’ gentler moments were part of their riffs on rom-com conventions; here, they often feel more like flinches.

Illustration for article titled iThe King Of Staten Island /ireveals the limitations of the Judd Apatow star vehicle
Photo: Universal Pictures

It doesn’t have to be this way. Apatow showed willingness to press further into the darkness with Funny People, where Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen play stand-up comedians at decidedly different phases of their careers. It has all the hallmarks of Apatovian self-indulgence: a sprawling cast (including major roles for the writer-director’s family and tons of cameos), an ample running time, and a milieu saturated with celebrity and privilege. It’s also his only film where the main characters aren’t saved by committing themselves to couplehood or family. The much-maligned final stretch where Sandler’s character George Simmons celebrates a new lease on life by attempting to steal his ex-girlfriend away from her family is almost a parody of Apatow maturation expediency: After a lot of riffing and noodling, George tries to have his redemptive third act without doing the work.

It’s not entirely fair to say the same thing about King Of Staten Island; Davidson and Apatow are obviously working hard, and they’ve made an entertaining movie that tries to speak more to Davidson’s experiences than the filmmaker’s, a noble goal for a writer-director. What they haven’t done is push hard enough on that bruise to shock Apatow out of what has become a soft-hearted comfort zone. If the movie doesn’t indulge in a fantastical level of success (Scott doesn’t decide to pick up the stand-up mic), it’s also skittish about real failure. For the first time, Apatow has taken a young star under his wing, and guided him toward a kind of middle-aged complacency.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!

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