Movie Review: ‘The King of Staten Island’ doesn’t quite put everything together
Director: Judd Apatow
Writer: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson
Stars: Pete Davidson, Bel Powley, Ricky Velez
Synopsis: Scott has been a case of arrested development since his firefighter dad died. He spends his days smoking weed and dreaming of being a tattoo artist until events force him to grapple with his grief and take his first steps forward in life.
Two-thirds of the way through Judd Apatow’s new film The King of Staten Island, I still couldn’t remember the main character’s first name.
His name, in fact, is Scott (Pete Davidson), but I point this out because I think the film’s main issue is that its main character just isn’t interesting enough. He’s a stoner in his mid-20s still living with his mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei). He’s an adolescent figure, having never figured out what to do with his life. This is the formula that Judd Apatow has built his career on and has surged previous SNL comedians like Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell to superstardom before Davidson.
We quickly learn that a big reason for that arrested development is the trauma he’s endured in his life. His father, Stan, – a firefighter – died when he was young. He had saved two people from a fire before a roof caved in on him.
If that sounds like a rather somber backstory for a comedy starring Pete Davidson, then you’ve come upon the crux of this film. From the very beginning, it’s clear that this film depends entirely on the persona that Davidson has built up. More than that, there’s an even greater reason for Davidson’s unique ties to this film, one of which I was honestly not aware going into the film.
But this is a comedy, and so much of the film’s early going plays off the adolescent nature of Davidson’s persona. His dream is to run a tattoo parlor/restaurant – an idea that multiple characters ridicule throughout the film. But that doesn’t stop Scott from practicing his tattoo artistry. There’s a scene where Scott tattoos a 9-year old kid named Harold (Luke David Blumm) in the woods when the kid notices his tattoo gun and asks for a tattoo. Scott can only get as far as tattooing a crooked line on him before he runs off in pain.
That kid turns out to be the son of Ray Bishop (Bill Burr), who is also a firefighter and ends up starting a relationship with Margie. It’s a preposterous plot, but the film handles it with sincerity. Ray becomes Scott’s worst enemy. This will be the main tension for the remainder of the film.
If we’re being entirely accurate, this film really wants to be more on the “drama” side of the dramedy genre in which it falls. I had some laughs, but there were also some jokes that fell completely flat (particularly a reference to being “Me Too’d”). The film clearly wants to hit home its more dramatic elements, and as the film goes on, the comedic ones fall to the wayside.
Davidson’s persona works very well on Weekend Update, where he can nonchalantly stand outside situations and act like he doesn’t care about, well, anything. It’s hilarious there. But, for most of this film, I wasn’t so sure that it worked as well when he’s the lead actor in a film. His character is hard to root for precisely because he seems intent on not wanting to be rooted for. He just doesn’t care, and he’s set on floating through life this way.
But Davidson clearly comes into his own about halfway through the film when Apatow gives him a searing monologue at a minor league baseball game about why firefighters shouldn’t have children. This is where you realize that Apatow has more in mind than simply playing into Davidson’s common persona.
Having said that, Apatow also finds creative ways to use Davidson’s “forever adolescent” persona beyond just having him be a down-on-his-luck stoner. There are two scenes where characters yell to their kids to tell them to look both ways when crossing the street. The joke comes when the second time involves Scott leading the children on a walk to school. On this walk, Scott asks Harold’s younger sister, Kelly (Alexis Rae Forlenza), what she enjoys. She says she likes singing, and she begins singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma!. Scott’s next line may have been my biggest laugh in the film.
“I don’t agree with the sentiment of the song, but it was really great.”
That encapsulates Scott’s whole deal. Life has been horrible to him and he doesn’t see any upside around him. And yet, he’s like a puppy dog – still reaching out through encouragement and attempts at being there for those around him.
A turning point in the film comes when Scott’s group of stoner friends ask him to help them rip off a pharmacy. He makes the right choice and backs out, even though his friends implore him. It’s a nice character revelation. He knows his limits, even if it doesn’t seem like that on the surface.
Another key character in the film is Scott’s sister, Claire (played by Apatow’s daughter, Maude). She’s an overachiever, and she has recently gone off to college. Scott, Margie, and Ray all go to visit her, and an interaction at dinner was the other big laugh I had. Ray shows Claire pictures of his kids from a previous marriage. (His ex-wife, Gina, is played strikingly well by Pamela Adlon.) Ray then looks over at Scott and says, “You take them to school don’t you?”
Davidson replies, “Yeah, I know who they are.”
That’s the humor the Davidson nails. His delivery is spot on. The problem is that the movie wants the dramatic parts to be the best it has to offer. But Davidson’s unique skill set is diametrically opposed to that idea. The dramatic elements fell flat because it never feels like he’s fully committed. At least, that’s how I felt for most of the film.
I mentioned Adam Sandler before, and I think his career is a striking comparison for Davidson. We now see Sandler pushing himself with unique parts that allow him to go deep into a character. I think Davidson has that within him, too. He doesn’t have to stay pigeonholed in the “forever adolescent” character. Yes, Sandler built an empire on that prior to films like Punch Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories, and Uncut Gems. Maybe I’d just like to see Davidson get there quicker. Because I do think he has acting talent and he clearly has the ability to create a persona. I just wonder what would happen if those efforts were a bit more focused.
After dinner, Scott is walking with Claire and they are talking about Margie’s relationship with Ray. Scott just cannot accept that it’s a good thing. Claire pushes him to let their mother live her life and try to focus more on better his life – possibly by going to college. But Scott can’t see that for himself. Life has given him a raw deal, and he feels that there’s no sense in trying anymore. He’s just left with what he has.
Now Scott is desperate to get rid of Ray, so he ends up going in with his friends on the pharmacy robbery anyways. Yet, here again, his apathetic nature pops up in a key way. But the movie doesn’t really follow-up on this scene in a satisfying fashion. The scene happens and then it doesn’t have much of an impact. I think this is a major issue for the film. With what happens in this scene, the fact that Scott kind of just moves on from it without much follow-up leaves an unsatisfied feeling for the audience. (We are given one scene where we goes back to talk with his friends about their situation following the robbery, but it doesn’t really tie everything up.)
After this, the film quickly shifts gears to Scott’s attempts to bond with the other people in his life after Margie finally kicks him out of the house. He goes to his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Kelsey (Bel Powley). But she kicks him out too after she realizes he only sees her as a last chance at a safety net, not as a person worthy of a relationship. Finally, the movie gets to where it’s been wanting to go the whole time – he’s forced to bond with Ray.
Let me stop and praise the supporting performances in the film. Marisa Tomei is a great actress. She’s just a great actress – there’s no two ways about it. I’ve never seen her in a role where she does not bring something interesting to it. No one else is on her level in this film, although Powley, Adlon and Steve Buscemi (as the firehouse chief) all have their own scene-stealing moments.
As Scott and Ray bond at the firehouse, the film falls into its worst inclinations, in my opinion. They put Scott to work and teach him life lessons. It all happens with Ray watching closely and the shadow of Scott’s father never too far off. The point of the film is…”haha millennials”, I guess? For much of the film the story seems to be saying that everyone’s still got some immaturity to deal with. But then it just doubles down on the “millennials don’t know how to work” trope in these later scenes. Maybe that’s Judd Apatow’s experience, I don’t know. But it seems like a poor premise for a film.
The nice thing about these scenes is that Buscemi gets his time to shine. He tells Scott about his dad with stories from back in the day. Apatow deploys Buscemi well here just like with Tomei throughout the rest of the film. It’s Davidson that defies deployment. He’s seems constantly detached, and that’s a hard needle to thread.
However, as the film reaches its close, I must say that my experience was largely reoriented. Let’s first talk about the film’s legitimately great closing shot. Scott has learned about hard work, and he has dealt with some of the issues in his life. He has finally reached the point where he wants a legitimate relationship with Kelsey, and he goes to support her on a major life decision of hers with no ulterior motives. This brings them to downtown Manhattan, where the film cuts to black with Scott looking up at the skyscrapers. His life is before him. The possibilities are endless. For the first time, he actually sees his own potential and he’s ready to reach for it.
That closing shot takes on even more meaning when you understand the backstory of the film. Again, I did not know any of this going into it. Learning about Davidson’s own history definitely puts the film in a different light. I’m not going to spell it out for you here in case you, too, are unaware. But, suffice it to say that Apatow and Davidson made key artistic choices here for the purpose of giving Davidson an opportunity to wrestle with his own life. And when the film’s postscript comes up on the screen, it made it impossible for me to forget Scott’s name anymore.
While this ending reoriented the film for me and made it an ultimately more emotionally-resonant experience for me, I don’t think it saves the film. Even that striking final shot has its issues as the film constantly reminds us through Kelsey’s dialogue that she thinks there’s more to Staten Island than people give it credit for. Yet the closing shot seems to say that, while that’s all well and good, you really need to go to Manhattan to do anything with your life. I think that’s a microcosm of the film for me – even the things it gets right just aren’t quite executed well enough.
It’s a film that has its positive qualities – especially when viewed in light of Davidson’s experience – but it doesn’t ultimately bring it all together. As is the case with many Apatow movies, it’s also a little bit too long with some completely extraneous scenes.
However, it does give me some added expectation for where Davidson could go in his career. Maybe he just needed to get these feelings out. I really do think the sky’s the limit from here.