THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND (dir. by Judd Apatow, 136 minutes, USA, 2020)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC In The King of Staten Island, now streaming on VOD, director Judd Apatow returns to the formula that worked so well with Trainwreck : creating a vehicle around a comedian’s perceived public persona. This time around he’s chosen SNL’s resident bad boy Pete Davidson, who’s been going through a bit of a rough patch recently. After a very public and messy relationship/separation from Ariana Grande, he then went on to bite the hand that feeds by publicly criticizing SNL during a sit-down with Charlamagne tha God. Given the tragic outcomes of previous SNL Alumni, I feel like they’ve done nothing but try to humanize Pete, while also giving him a platform to raise awareness of his battles with drugs and depression, which is basically what The King of Staten Island also attempts.
The resulting movie is a hodgepodge of the autobiographical details of Pete’s life intermixed with a fictional narrative. The true parts are as follows: he’s from Staten Island, lives in his mother’s basement, has a younger sister and his father was a firefighter, who died when he was seven years old. Surprisingly, the film surprisingly shies away from the fact that his father died while in service during the 9/11 terror attacks on New York City. The fictional part is that he wants to be a tattoo artist and open the first tattoo shop/restaurant which will be called…wait for it…Ruby Tattoosday’s. The faux narrative has Pete’s younger sister going off to college and his mother (Marisa Tomei) finding love in the arms of another fireman Ray (Bill Burr), forcing him out of the nest. This of course goes how you’d expect: at first he rebels but soon winds up befriending Ray and together they try to work through losing his father while also dealing with living up to his memory.
When I saw that the movie is two hours and sixteen-minute long, I expected that Pete Davidson’s “pothead weirdo” schtick would wear out its welcome long before the credits roll. However, Davidson shines here, and is easily the best thing to come out of this convoluted mess of a narrative, littered with lame comedy clichés, tired tropes and plot threads that go nowhere. The King of Staten Island is constantly battling with whether it wants to be a light comedic romp about arrested development, a la every Adam Sandler film not called Punch Drunk Love or Uncut Gems, or a gritty autobiographical story of one troubled manboy’s rise above his demons a la 8 Mile . One minute he’s hanging with Ray’s with eight-year-old son and spitballing what would make an awesome superhero, and the next he’s involved in a shootout while robbing a pharmacy.
One thing King makes abundantly clear is Davidson has the chops to carry a film and his brand of off-color humor translates surprisingly well to big screen. Where Apatow fails Davidson, however, is not steering this film away from the darker thematic tones and elements that were obviously Davidson’s contributions to the script. It’s those odd tonal shifts and interludes that derail what I realistically think would be a solid 90 minutes instead of a muddled two hours and twenty. The King of Staten Island isn’t bad, but the potential for a great film remains tantalizingly just below the surface and that’s what I ultimately find so frustrating about it. It’s like you can see that tonal battle of egos play out on screen, resulting in a film that simply gets tired of fighting with itself, and runs out of steam before brokering a proper peace accord.