It goes without saying that director Judd Apatow’s latest comedy may very well be his artsiest and most poignant. His films usually have to do with an adult main character who has to figure out how to grow up, but his latest endeavor takes a darker turn. The King of Staten Island opens with Pete Davidson, playing a semi-autobiographical version of himself, contemplating suicide behind the wheel of a car.
Apatow’s 2009 comedy Funny People attempted a similar tone, but the premise wasn’t nearly as relatable, prioritizing a “new” direction for its star, Adam Sandler. But 11 years later, Apatow is much wiser and has a better perspective, presumably. Even when it feels like none of the characters in Staten Island have any compassion, we can still tell the man behind the camera does.
The film stars Davidson in the slacker role of Scott Carlin. He’s 24 years-old and layabout still living with his widowed mother Margie (Marisa Tomei). Scott’s father, a firefighter, died on duty when he was little. He has memories of him, but they’re vague and tailored by his mother to fit a certain hero image.
Unemployed and spending everyday with his friends smoking weed and playing video games, Scott dreams of being a tattoo artist, but the practice tats on his friends’ skins range from terrible to indecipherable. His unproductive life is thrown for a loop when his mom starts dating Ray (Bill Burr), another firefighter like his dad. Ray is something of a loose cannon and constantly runs his mouth, trying to control everything around him. Meanwhile, he’s somewhat of a slacker himself, with two kids of his own he’s trying to avoid spending time with.
If you’ve ever been close friends with somebody with bipolar disorder, you know how often outings can simply be spoiled if they’re not in the right mood. It’s a sad reality, and not necessarily one that’s appealing to watch repeatedly throughout a film, but it’s still a reality nonetheless.
Having nobody believe in you is an obstacle, but not believing in yourself is a curse. Scott is usually an unlikable guy, but the audience won’t find him that way. We empathize with his issues and the life he’s had, forcing us to open our own lenses when dealing with other people we may consider to be “lazy bums” or otherwise antisocial.
Our protagonist has a skewed view of normalcy that borders on stupidity. In one scene, he meets a 9-year-old in the park and gives him a free tattoo on his arm. Scott openly refers to himself as a bum, almost embracing the title in order to validate the idea that he doesn’t need a job or responsibility. He recognizes his mother’s fear of disciplining him and exploits it. Scott is like Seth Rogen’s character in Knocked Up if the situation were darker and more disparaging.
Every conversation Scott has with anyone is awkward, mostly because nobody in this movie knows how to properly communicate with anybody else, as though Apatow had been taking notes from fellow director David O. Russell in the art of stress. Scenes have a tendency to get chaotic and so does the film’s point. The script, written by Apatow, Davidson, and Dave Sirus, juggles a lot of different ideas, but never exactly pinning down half of them, when in fact, they all coincide with one another.
Scott has ADD and struggles with an obvious lack of self-confidence, but also seems to lack any motivation. The fear of failure isn’t what prevents most of us from trying, but, paradoxically, the fear of success. Success is a far more foreign concept, bringing with it responsibility and pressure. And attention. These concepts are merely subtext to the “every family has their issues” theme.
The themes seem to be vast, but they’re mostly ones we’ve seen before. However, the cast and sources of comedy are so likable and appealing that they give the predictable outcomes the flair they need.
The comedy isn’t just for laughs this time around, but used as a defense mechanism by our protagonist, the same way people with depression may use it. The infamously drawn-out joke style that Apatow basically fathered in the film industry distracts from the oft-halted plot, yet somehow the story has a natural flow. Perhaps because Davidson is actually very funny and his ad-libs feel fresh.
Davidson is playing a version of himself, but still elevates the movie. He brings his charms and typical cynicism. He depicts the mental instability of Scott as a serious problem, even when he’s joking around, and lowers his own walls to tap into how he’s similar to his character. Many of us who have followed the actor’s career know he has his own issues. He, too, has dealt with depression and suicidal thoughts, and to show this on screen with this kind of conviction is not only brave but powerful.
Tomei delivers a beautiful performance reminding everyone why she’s one of the most versatile actresses in the industry. Her character slowly gets a hold of her own independence and eventually finds herself. This firm grasp on development is Apatow’s strongest quality in this film. As much as Scott’s negative actions affect everybody around him, his growth affects them just the same. The filmmaker makes sure to show how the protagonist is not the only one changing and growing.
Staten Island features relentlessly stubborn characters who don’t abide by certain film conventions where characters allow one specific moment to change him or her. Instead, it’s the compilation of all their experiences that change them—just like in real life. Sometimes it’s hard to believe a character in a movie can change who they are based on one event because in life that seldom happens.
Burr’s character, Ray, is one to watch here as well. At first he acts empathetic towards Scott to appeal to his mother, but we eventually see him become more genuinely compassionate as we go, subtly gaining real empathy, doing so without trying to appeal to the camera or the audience’s expectations of him.
Apatow consistently depicts a full spectrum of emotion. Within a certain scene he manages to show the emotional impact of characters who aren’t necessarily involved in the conversation. When Steve Buscemi, playing another firefighter, tells Scott a story about his father, we see Apatow doesn’t just use the typical back and forth (aka shot-reverse shot) of the camera between Buscemi and Davidson, but places the camera on a triangle, so to speak. We see Burr’s reaction, or lack thereof, to Buscemi’s stories.
It’s not necessary for the scene and Burr isn’t really reacting in a particularly notable way, but the director recognizes that it’s important for the audience to understand how he views Scott’s father in these moments. It feels candid and real.
Because of its dedication to subtle character development, The King of Staten Island never really delivers that one home run moment to satisfy all audiences. We never see Scott’s revelation, he just gets there gradually over time. Typically I wouldn’t fault a movie too much for that, but I related so much to his story that it would have been vicariously cathartic to get such a big moment. Apart from Davidson’s sublime performance, Apatow is at his absolute best here. The narrative may not be as crisp as his earlier films, but the content is so different it wouldn’t be fair to compare it to those. This is easily his deepest film yet, speaking to an entirely new generation of slackers.