The King of Staten Island might be the quintessential Judd Apatow film. It embodies the balancing act of juvenile humour and mature wisdom that characterises his films as a director. This time, however, the balls drop together.
Apatow shares writing credits on The King of Staten Island with SNL’s Pete Davidson, as well as David Sirus, on a story loosely inspired by Davidson’s life. Davidson, 25 years Apatow’s junior, provides a fine counterpoint to harmonize the anxieties and the brand of humour that attract audiences to the director’s films. (Although, like every Apatow film, it’s about half-an-hour too long.) The King of Staten Island isn’t Apatow’s funniest film to date, but it’s arguably his most heartfelt and endearing.
King of Arrested Development
Davidson plays Scott Carlin, a twentysomething who lives at home with his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei). He shows no signs of moving out. Scott attributes his lack of direction to the childhood trauma of losing his father, a firefighter, at the age of seven. However, with his sister (Maude Apatow) off to college, Margie doesn’t seem in a rush to become an empty nester.
While his mom turns a blind eye, Scott treads water contentedly in a state of arrested development. He enjoys a casual/non-committal relationship with his lady friend Kelsey (Bel Powley). He smokes pot with his guy friends and uses them as canvasses to test his tattoo skills. Scott’s hand with the tattoo pen is hilariously terrible, as noted by the cat butts and “Obama” figures that brand his buds. However, Scott’s aptitudes for tattooing and idiocy collide in his mom’s favour. After giving a nine-year-old kid some ink, the boy’s dad comes calling. Enter Ray (Bill Burr) who takes a much nicer tune when Margie opens the door than instead of Scott. Cue Margie’s first date in 17 years and Scott’s new father figure to call out his adolescent behaviour.
As the inevitable Scott-Margie-Ray triangle develops, The King of Staten Island changes gears where other films might go for obvious laughs. Rather than merely antagonize Ray as an adolescent man-child, Scott grows up. He does so in Apatow-film fashion, bussing tables at a restaurant where staff members play Fight Club for tips. He also assumes a fatherly role by walking Ray’s kids to school as punishment for his adolescent ways. These strolls are rife with parental insight, pedophile jokes, and age-inappropriate life lessons. Being second fiddle to Ray inspires Scott to become the man that Margie always needed him to be.
Passing the Crown
Davidson gives a confidently funny and vulnerable performance. Staten draws upon the death of Davidson’s father, Scott, a firefighter who died on 9/11. The tattoos are all Davidson’s own ink, too, and he comfortably wears his true self as a second skin for his character Scott. As a writer, he brings a fresh sense of humour to the Apatow oeuvre. The King of Staten Island favours understated comedy, whereas Apatow often goes for broader laughs or flubs the landing when approaching a similar tenor (see: Funny People, This Is 40). The film often favours the unexpected in its character development, especially regarding Scott’s growth with both his mother and Ray. Tomei, somewhat owning the MILF role after her stint as Aunt May in the latest Spider-Man flicks, brings maturity, humour, and vivacious spirit the mother still searching for herself.
Staten marks another case like Apatow’s stronger films, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Trainwreck, which feature actors playing characters they wrote. With Apatow writing alongside Davidson, however, Staten finds common ground between jokes about drugs, farts, and orgasms, and the coming-of-age soul-searching that the director often tries to blend. They can be actually go hand in hand with just the right touch. The difference between Staten Island and something like, say, Funny People is that Davidson is still figuring himself out. Whereas Funny People sees Adam Sandler play a loose dramatic variation of himself as a comic, mostly to prove his chops as a “serious” actor to atone for a career largely filled with terrible choices, Staten lets Davidson make sense of his life and work through the character. There’s a tangible catharsis to the film as Scott grows. One feels a comedic artist find his voice.