NEW YORK — Though there are few individuals who have had more influence in American comedy these past 20 years, the Queens-born, Long Island-bred, Jewish-American Judd Apatow hasn’t directed as many feature films as you might think.
As a producer and writer he’s been involved in favorites such as “Freaks and Geeks,” “Anchorman,” “Superbad,” “Step Brothers,” “Girls,” and “The Big Sick.”
“The King of Staten Island,” though, is only his sixth go as a director.
Like his last effort with Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck,” this is a sturdy vehicle for a hot comic known from television to broaden a preexisting persona, while exposing just enough raw nerve to feel really real. With the dynamism of Apatow’s new muse, Pete Davidson, this is his best work since 2007’s “Knocked Up.”
Apatow’s films (which also include “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Funny People” and “This is 40”) have always relied on Howard Hawks’s “Rio Bravo” style of the unofficially dubbed “hangin’ out” movie. More so than any of his previous work, “The King of Staten Island” defies synopsis. It is a lengthy (two hours and 17 minutes) clothesline from which to warmly laugh and sigh with, and maybe a little at, the colossally damaged Pete Davidson.
The plot is this: A 24-year-old screw-up is considering maybe getting his act together some day. He probably won’t, but by the end you are convinced that he’s going to try.
Many of us have a loved one in our life who does nothing but let us down, and outsiders can’t understand why we let them get away with it. This movie will explain to them that we aren’t the pushovers we appear to be. “Give the kid a break,” Steve Buscemi, a physical embodiment of empathy, says to Bill Burr, who has been locking horns with Davidson since he started dating his mom, played by Marisa Tomei. It’s a simple moment, but it’s the movie in a nutshell; don’t try to change someone, just love them unconditionally, because that’s the only thing you can do.
Buscemi and Burr play firemen, and they knew Davidson’s father when he died on the job 17 years ago. That trauma is still reverberating, as has a lifetime of ADD, Crohn’s disease, constant recreational drug use and an addiction to bad tattoos.
You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the name of the character Pete Davidson plays (it’s Scott) because so much of this comes ripped from his own life. Davidson’s father (whose name was also Scott) was a firefighter who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. The movie switches the event to a less geopolitically sensitive tragedy (wisely, I think) but knowing this behind-the-scenes detail certainly brings weight to the film. (Incidentally, Pete Davidson was raised Roman Catholic but discovered as an adult that his father was Jewish. It wasn’t a secret, it’s just that nobody thought to tell him.)
If I’m making this film sound heavy, I apologize. It’s actually hysterical. Not 30 seconds go by without a quality joke. There’s a reason the real life Pete Davidson has a perch on “Saturday Night Live.”
Scott’s younger sister (played by Maude Apatow, Judd’s daughter) graduates from high school so now it’s just him and mom, an emergency room nurse. He hangs out in the basement, smokes weed, watches TV, occasionally hooks up with a quasi-girlfriend (British actress Bel Powley doing an outstanding Staten Island accent) and thinks maybe he’ll be a professional tattoo artist some day. (No one has the heart to tell him his tattoos are absolutely horrible.) When his mom finds a new boyfriend, he bonds a little with the guy’s kids, walking them to school and saying inappropriate things. He’ll never get a job, he’ll never go to college, he’ll never take a relationship seriously. All he’ll do is exasperate you. He’s a loser.
Despite “looking like an anorexic panda,” he is a tidal wave of charisma and clever quips. His deadeye riffs on whatever the heck is happening to him right now are surprisingly keen observations. Why waste time washing a fire truck? Are people in a burning house going to be upset if you show up and it’s dirty?
People with New York City roots will greatly enjoy the specificity of the locale, but let’s face it, every city has a “Staten Island” — it’s the part of town known mostly for its garbage dump. (“The only place that even New Jersey looks down on!”) It’s got absolutely nothing going for it. Except its people, that is.
With the movie business in absolute shambles right now thanks to COVID-19, “The King of Staten Island” is not getting the theatrical release it deserves. It will be available (for $20) via all known online platforms on June 12, the first mainstream, non-animated movie to do this since the crisis began.
In a way, it is fitting that this mangled mess of a character should have a botched release. But rather than turn away, we should cheer it for crossing the finish line, and embrace it for what it is.
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