If one of our favorite conversations to have as movie-watchers centers on which character actors reign supreme of the Sam Elliotts and Bill Paxtons of the world, maybe it’s time to start talking about character directors. Which filmmakers most consistently blend a screenplay’s tonal specificity with the right actor so that a protagonist’s energy bends the movie to their thoughts, words and actions?
Here’s one for consideration: Judd Apatow, who’s made a habit of jump-starting the intermediate phases of actor’s careers by calibrating his movies to the unique charismas of Seth Rogan, Steve Carrell, Amy Schumer and other comedy acolytes. His latest muse and partner: The heavily tattooed and square-jawed Pete Davidson, who at 26 might just be graduating from SNL mainstay to major big-screen presence with Apatow’s sensible and enjoyable new dramedy, “The King of Staten Island.” Although the film is more effective as a fictionalized testimonial of Davidson’s own life up to this point (he shares writing credit with Apatow and Dave Sirus) than a story with three complete acts, its leading man’s frenzied aura is put fully on display in what might be the most platonic movie Apatow has made to this point in his career.
“The King of Staten Island” follows Davidson’s Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old denizen of the titular New York borough who’s been stuck on first gear in career, love and life ever since his firefighter dad died when he was young enough for the event to be foundational to everything that would come later. Content with lighting up a joint while everyone else in his life is getting a move on in theirs – his sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), is leaving for college; his mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei, marvelous), has started seeing someone new; and his lady friend, Kelsey (Bel Powley), wants to be more than friends with benefits – Scott maneuvers his days with grim resignation, and Davidson’s lanky 6-foot-1 frame makes a perfect vessel for Scott’s coiled-up potential. There are occasional suggestions that lingering grief may push it from being a defense mechanism to an excuse for self-harm, but Scott’s otherwise comfortable talking about the uncomfortable things—so long as it’s on his terms.
He wavers between moody, buoyant and aimless (as does the movie), but newfound motivation will bloom behind his deadpan gaze when Margie divulges the new guy she’s seeing is a firefighter just like his dad was. Scott’s wary at the news. He’s happy for his mom moving on, but he’s now got to compromise keeping up with the new relationship without feeling like he’s forgetting his father in the process.
The deft cross-stitching of pathos and crude humor that makes an Apatow movie an Apatow movie is very much apparent in the construction of “King of Staten Island,” a movie of confrontations and reckonings that spark when Scott’s antipathy starts to resemble antagonism. Although Apatow’s sixth feature is comparatively light on his trademark absurdity, filling those spaces is a bittersweet earnestness that has plenty of room to stretch its feet mostly without feeling like an awkward companion to the jokes that tend to come at a spitfire, improvisational-like pace (one hilarious early scene sees Scott and his stoner friends arguing about the ethical and legal merits of tattooing a 12-year-old kid who’s attracted to the ink). “Staten Island” is absolutely one of the funniest movies that the first half of 2020 has brought us so far, and the jokes tend to be thornier than the movie’s drama, especially when filtered through subtle thematic undercurrents of mortality and budding recklessness.
The film’s performances, meanwhile, are its real strength, especially when it comes to Davidson and Tomei, and the latter’s ability to curl a grimace or lob a retort with a New York flavor that makes it impossible to look away. Powley’s Staten Island drawl provides its own magnetic pull, and Bill Burr is a necessary emotional metronome as Margie’s new squeeze; he’s low-key and explosive precisely when he needs to be.
The thing that should be noted about “King of Staten Island” is how personal a story it is for Davidson. In fact, it’s practically his own story. The actor’s real-life father was a firefighter who died in 9/11, so it’s attractive to think of the project as a self-referential piece of therapeutic moviemaking, similar to what last year’s “Honey Boy” represented for Shia LaBeouf. More than being a great actor for Apatow’s sensibilities, it’s easy to see (and easier to understand) why Davidson feels so invested in the performance; when Scott yells “When am I gonna get my break?” there’s a quiet sorrow that may very well connect character and performer.
And yet, “King of Staten Island” never demands our attention more strongly than when Scott tightly shuts his eyes and steps on the gas on a crowded highway before swerving out of the way of disaster at the last second. The scene teases a movie with a stronger bite than Apatow has perhaps ever made; instead, it only loosens its jaws over the next two hours, albeit with plenty of R-rated humor to hold us over.
The movie’s origins may also be why it feels like we’ve arrived at an inevitable place when, in the movie’s overlong final stretch, the film dials down Scott’s coarseness for something much triter and pulls back on the crass for Hallmark-ready sympathy. In one long stretch where Scott rediscovers himself as an adopted child of a fire station, “King of Staten Island” feels like something totally un-Apatow-ian: a redemptive journey where nothing is learned so much as the air around current knowledge is cleared up. There’s nothing distractedly baffling here (Apatow is too smart a filmmaker to trip over himself), but “King of Staten Island” just barely allows us to catch a whiff of the release of frustrations that Scott has kept pent up inside. That’s about as much as we can expect as far as narrative or character development, which in this movie are practically one in the same.
That doesn’t make for an unsatisfying conclusion so much as an indefinite one. Apatow and Davidson trade the microscope for the telescope as “King of Staten Island” zooms out of Scott’s internal anguish to examine an uncharted future in the film’s final moments, which somehow feel like an abrupt ending even after 135 minutes. But there’s nowhere in the movie where its origins are more apparent. If this is a mirror of Davidson’s own experiences, the final shot that sees Scott quite literally looking up and on to a brave new world is as self-reflective as any scene that has come before it.
"The King of Staten Island" is rated R for language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images. It's available to rent on digital platforms Friday.
Starring: Pete Davidson, Bel Powley, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr
Directed by Judd Apatow