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Judd Apatow loves coming-of-age films about actual adults. That was clear in his feature debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and continued onward through Knocked Up and Trainwreck. Now, he’s directed The King of Staten Island, a comedy where Apatow’s sensibilities clash with the acerbic dirtbag antics of Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson. Anyone who has watched the aforementioned films will recognize Apatow hallmarks, whether it’s unexpected gross-out humor or scenes that take a touch too long to finish, borne out of a filmmaker being too enamored with himself to make smart choices.
This film is semi-autobiographical—Davidson wrote the screenplay with Apatow and Dave Sirus—so it borrows heavily from Davidson’s early life. Davidson’s father was a firefighter who died as a first responder during the 9/11 attacks. Here, Davidson plays Scott, an aimless loser and aspiring tattoo artist who still lives with his mom (Marisa Tomei) and never fully recovered from losing his firefighter father. Life advances forward as Scott’s younger sister heads to college and his mom begins dating someone new, and he resents all of it. He is afraid of change because it means he has to reckon with his grief, and it is so much easier to wander through life in a stoned haze.
There are many subplots in this film: The romantic subplot with Scott’s mom and her new boyfriend (Bill Burr) is a sweet, gentle story about middle-aged people who see romance as a calculated risk. Scott’s friends plan to rob a pharmacy, using the drugs they find to buy a better life. There is also a plausible, observant workplace comedy at the firehouse where Scott somehow finds himself. Scott is on the periphery of all these stories—and they could all easily resolve without him. I cannot help but wonder if a better film could be made without the “king” in it.
There are thoughtful scenes, like the opening where Scott has a major panic attack while driving. Davidson is equal parts defensive and vulnerable, and watching ordinary people negotiate with him creates a palpable sense of tragedy. But Apatow’s affection for improvisation is a weakness here as he lets his actors riff and create a bloated runtime. Davidson’s comic style is raw and confrontational, the sort of thing that could bring energy to a story like this, but he loses his edge in a film that feels longer than it should.
This is also the grittiest film that Apatow has ever made—he does not shy away from Scott’s depravity, like a scene in which he thinks it’s a good idea to tattoo a child. Then there is the business of the pharmacy robbery, which leads to violence, and there’s also the real danger the firefighter characters must face. All this grittiness adds to a sense of realism at first, but the trouble is that everyone sounds like they’re being fed lines by a comedian like Apatow. It’s admirable how he advances the careers of his lead actors, however all that goodwill drains with an unfocused approach.
The King of Staten Island is all about decent people who try to get an immature and broken man on the right path. They plead with him, make excuses for him, and, most of all, they wait. By the time Scott finally becomes slightly less of a screwup, your patience and curiosity will already be way too eroded for his development to leave any real satisfaction.
The King of Staten Island is available on VOD platforms starting June 12.