Judd Apatow has earned a reputation for a filmmaking style that exists somewhere between comedy and drama.
With features like This is 40, Funny People, and Trainwreck, the ubiquitous name in comedy has pushed boundaries on what could be depicted within a genre film. Each of these films has toed the line of hilarious slapstick humor and the realistic plights of everyday people. Where some have succeeded more than others, each new entry has a unique perspective and something new to offer.
In The King of Staten Island, Apatow joins Pete Davidson in creating a semi-biographical coming of age story inspired by Davidson’s life. The film isn’t bad in any sense, but it neither drives many laughs nor offers enough moments of dramatic poignancy to stand out among the filmmaker’s previous efforts.
The film opens to a near suicidal Scott Carlin (Davidson), a 24-year old self described bum who lives in Staten Island with his mother. Like in Davidson’s own life, Carlin’s firefighter father died fighting a fire, leaving behind his wife and children. Years later, Carlin has yet to move forward beyond his tragic loss, subsequently taking out his narcissistic self indulgence on those around him.
In the first act, Carlin’s sister Claire leaves for college. She leaves mother Margie Carlin (Marisa Tomei) in shambles. Distraught and lacking hope for her son, Margie quickly becomes depressed.
Meanwhile, Carlin continues his thoughtless tendencies with his group of friends. One day on the beach, Carlin tattoos a 10-year-old kid in a laughably stupid sequence, the boy’s father Ray Bishop (Bill Burr), a loudmouth firefighter, comes to demand they remove his son’s tattoo. When he meets Carlin’s mother, however, Bishop immediately takes a liking to her.
The remainder of the film depicts Carlin’s misadventures interlaced with the blossoming relationship between his mother and Bishop.
The King of Staten Island is largely as aimless as its central character. Where most Apatow films forgo a locked structural storyline, King follows suit. This formula has worked for films like Funny People and This is 40, but with King it feels too undirected.
A key issue with the film is that it’s either too slowly paced or entirely boring. However inspired by true events they may be, scenes like robbing a local drug store seem too outlandish and out of place in what is mostly a more reserved character study about a lost soul.
What really saves the film is the delicate, raw performances from the central cast. Tomei and Burr are both believable as the broken but loving mother and hot headed divorcée firefighter, respectively. Especially poignant, though, is Davidson’s turn as the faux King. Davidson’s range from dramatically heavy scenes to lighthearted exchanges with neighbor Joy prove his talent. That said, Davidson establishes his comfort zone is playing someone true to himself, lacking the versatility of some of his SNL peers.
The King of Staten Island is far from the best work of Apatow or Davidson. The character study lacks compulsion for its majority, too heavily leaning into its lead character’s apathy towards the world. If not the most interesting, it is a well executed feature that empathetically brings forth a personal story from a comedian few have seen beneath his veiled dark humor.