No matter how drastically the world outside may change, the look and feel of a Judd Apatow movie remain the same. The King of Staten Island, Apatow’s first new film of the 2020s, doesn’t explicitly take place in the present day — even its brief forays into topical humor, like Game of Thrones (2011-19) jokes and gags involving Snapchat filters, don’t necessarily bind the film to any particular date. It’s been a half-decade since his last film, Trainwreck (2015), but The King of Staten Island certainly doesn’t feel five years older. This is partly because it emanates that timeless Apatowian listlessness, that loose and improv-heavy structure that has defined studio comedies for years now, but it’s largely due to the film’s subject matter: Pete Davidson. Well, not exactly Pete Davidson. Technically, it’s a man (boy?) named Scott Carlin. Anyone who is at least vaguely familiar with today’s pop-culture headlines can see that Carlin is Davidson, though — both in casting and in character.
Scott Carlin (Davidson), still reeling from his firefighter father’s death in a three-alarm blaze when Scott was only 7, finds himself in something of a state of arrested development. Everyone and everything in his life seems to be reaching full potential except him. His sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), will be heading off to college soon. His mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei), a widow for nearly two decades, is now ready to “get back out there” and start dating again. Even best friend Kelsey (Bel Powley) has grown tired of bumming around Staten Island and is preparing for a real job in Manhattan. Scott’s peers have all come to the final act of their particular coming-of-age films, but his days are still the stuff of adolescence: video games, drugs, alcohol, and dreams of a career as a tattoo artist. As it happens, this dream is actually what ultimately sends his comfortable life spiraling into a nightmare.
Goofing around on the beach one day, Scott and his friends Oscar (Ricky Velez), Richie (Lou Wilson), and Igor (Moises Arias) try to pressure a 9-year-old kid (Luke David Blumm) into letting Scott tattoo his arm for practice. He acts daring enough until the needle makes contact and the adrenaline wears off. He runs off, clutching the dark line on his arm and leaving the cackling group of guys behind. Unfortunately for Scott, the kid’s dad, Ray (Bill Burr), is a no-nonsense firefighter who shows up on Margie’s doorstep demanding she pay for the tattoo removal (since Scott obviously can’t afford to). As both an emergency room RN and a school nurse, Margie has access to the right equipment to get Ray’s son taken care of. Her kindheartedness in the face of Ray’s initial hostility ends up softening him and giving him the confidence to ask her on a date. This new addition to the family’s dynamic is nothing short of earth-shattering to Scott’s already fragile state of mind, and this suspected threat to his safety net could very well be his downfall.
An especially slight story (even by Apatow’s standards), The King of Staten Island would be worse off without Marisa Tomei and Bill Burr opposite Pete Davidson. An Oscar winner, Tomei has the natural prowess and infectious charisma to elevate what could have been Apatow’s biggest flop to a middling entry in the director’s sturdy canon. Not to knock Leslie Mann, Apatow’s trusty leading woman both on and off the screen, but this film demands an actress of a higher caliber — and Tomei delivers. Burr, a rising star in his own right, plays well off of Davidson as the hard-working Gen X archetype to his stereotypical millennial burnout. In real life, the two are representative of two different styles of stand-up, which only adds additional weight to the tense and sharp exchanges between the two characters. Powley, while sentenced to the sidelines for much of the film’s Mega Stuf center, is also notable as Davidson’s charming (and underutilized) love interest.
Like Quentin Tarantino and his affinity for the campy B-movies of the 20th century or the Coen brothers and their absorption with the Old Hollywood screwball comedies of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, Apatow puts his heart and soul into replicating the filmography of James L. Brooks. Terms of Endearment (1983), Broadcast News (1987), and As Good as It Gets (1997) are essentially the framework for any Apatow feature, bloated runtimes and all. Furthermore, Apatow is always taking the most promising and rough-hewn talents and sanding them down for mass consumption. Just look at Seth Rogen and his slew of male co-stars in Knocked Up (2007), almost all of whom have gone on to see great success in the mainstream; the roster of young stand-ups who skyrocketed after Funny People (2009); or even Amy Schumer in Trainwreck. The King of Staten Island is no different than any other Apatow feature in this respect — an overlong dramatic comedy starring a buzzworthy but unproven new talent ripe for commercialization. As such, the mileage may vary.
There’s one more Apatow trope not yet mentioned, and that’s because it demands a bit more attention here than in his other films. In Knocked Up, Apatow seemingly argues that a little hard work is all it takes for a boy to become a man — once you learn to accept the adult responsibilities that have been thrust on you (a baby, in that film’s case), you’ll finally find true happiness. The problem with recycling this lesson in The King of Staten Island is that Scott is not just a deadbeat because he’s lazy or immature. He’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s done a number on him in the nearly 20 years since his father’s death. Touching on the long-lasting effects of PTSD but never depicting it as anything more than something that makes you do or say things you end up regretting, Apatow and Davidson (who co-wrote the script) are wrong to suggest that some manual labor — working at the fire station, in this instance — could somehow undo years of untreated trauma. Working to turn pain into laughs may have worked for Davidson, whose father really was a firefighter who died on 9/11, but that doesn’t mean that scrubbing bathrooms and waxing firetrucks at the station could realistically fix Scott’s long-untreated mental illness.
As the credits on Apatow’s latest roll, it’s plain to see the writer-director is no amateur. Since his debut feature, The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), made stars out of its main cast of Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, and Seth Rogen (and made over $100 million for Universal), the director is routinely given the chance to perfect his craft: the 140-minute dramedy with the aesthetic of a sitcom that can be spliced with commercials and rerun as a three-hour programming block on E! or TBS in perpetuity. Although traditional box-office numbers for The King of Staten Island will be nonexistent because of Covid-19, Trainwreck (with a box office in that same $100 million range) suggested that Apatow was still a dependable and appealing name to American audiences. Yet it’s hard to deny that The King of Staten Island is a step down from Apatow’s usual fare, lacking the same quantity of laughs and heart that can usually be found in his slightly bloated features. Perhaps he should have taken after Scott and the firetruck and done a little more polishing on the script. From the viewer’s standpoint, it looks like he missed a spot or two.
The King of Staten Island is now available to rent from major online platforms.