THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND (Judd Apatow). 137 minutes. Available to rent on all digital platforms Friday (June 12). Rating: NNN
You know that thing Judd Apatow does? The thing where he finds the complexity and depth in a comic’s public persona and builds a feature film around them, turning performed exaggeration back into recognizable humanity?
He did it with Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, with Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, with Adam Sandler in Funny People and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck; he also encouraged Lena Dunham and Pete Holmes to spin their own histories and anxieties into entire HBO series.
Like I said, it’s his thing. Apatow’s been doing it his entire life: before he was actively writing, directing and producing comedy, he was interviewing comedians for his Long Island high-school radio station, and asking some pretty sharp questions. He’s fascinated by process as much as perspective – how stand-ups figure out what qualities of theirs an audience best responds to, and adjust their performances accordingly – and applies what he’s learned to moviemaking.
The King Of Staten Island is Apatow’s latest project, and it finds him turning his attention to Saturday Night Live player Pete Davidson. If you don’t know who that is, he’s the awkward sketch presence who comes fully to life whenever he’s appearing as himself on Weekend Update. And these days he’s as famous for his tabloid appearances and frankness about his mental health issues as he is for his comedy, which is clearly what drew Apatow to him.
The King Of Staten Island casts Davidson as Scott Carlin, an overgrown kid from New York City’s least respected borough who’s trying to figure himself out while also coping with trauma, mental illness and substance abuse.
Scripted by Apatow, Davidson and SNL writer Dave Sirus, the film doesn’t push Davidson particularly hard as an actor; Scott’s a wiseass with poor impulse control, spending most of his time with the friends he’s known forever – and occasionally sneaking off with Kelsey (Bel Powley), with whom he’s carrying on a secret relationship. When his widowed mother (Marisa Tomei) starts dating a fireman (Bill Burr), Scott launches a blatantly obvious campaign to break them up; that’s really the closest the movie has to a plot.
Mostly, The King Of Staten Island is about Scott’s slow, reluctant journey towards stability and accepting his own limitations. He wants to be a tattoo artist, but his work is inconsistent. He wants to connect to Kelsey, but his anxieties (and his meds) make it difficult to go all in. And he wants his world to stay the same, but everyone else is moving on with their lives – except for the people who are moving backward instead of forward.
Like its hero, the movie’s a bit of a mess: it’s shaggy and low-stakes and probably 40 minutes too long – but you can say that about most of Apatow’s films. And as is also the case with most of Apatow’s films, there’s something real and weighty rattling around inside The King Of Staten Island that can’t be denied. If you stick with it, it works. That’s all that really matters. That’s Apatow’s thing, too.