The King of Staten Island was directed by Judd Apatow (Trainwreck) from a script by himself, SNL scribe Pete Davidson, and Dave Sirus. It stars Davidson as Scott, a very different breed of Apatow protagonist in that he is a mid-20’s loser who smokes a lot of weed, hangs out with his friends a lot while they get high, aspires to a non-conventional career he doesn’t quite have the skills to be great at (tattoos this time), has some trauma he doesn’t really know how to process, and doesn’t have a job or his own place to live. Scott lives with his mother (Marisa Tomei), who was widowed when Scott’s firefighter father died on the job almost 17 years earlier. After his younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow) moves off to college after her high school graduation, however, his life takes a bit of a sharp turn for Scott when his mom starts dating another local firefighter named Ray (Bill Burr). The only problem? Ray and Scott don’t really get along, since Scott partially tattooed Ray’s son Harold (Luke David Blumm) after Harold ran into Scott and his group of friends at the beach one day and said he wanted to get a tattoo (needless to say, Harold wanted to stop right after he felt the needle in his arm). This relationship between Ray and Scott’s mom creates a lot of animosity between the two men, but more importantly, it begins to affect Scott on a more deeply emotional level, resurrecting the feelings he’s tried to run from his whole life. As Scott begins to take advantage of the people in his life in various ways, each of them begin to push him in the opposite direction, and if he wants to remain part of their lives, he needs to shape up, own up to his mistakes, let go of his past, and move on for himself. This movie also stars Bel Powley, Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson, Moises Arias, Kevin Corrigan, Jimmy Tatro, Alexis Rae Forlenza, and Steve Buscemi.
This movie is a bit of a mixed bag for me; there’s more good in that bag than not good, but since there’s only so much good to go around, it can leave one feeling a little unfulfilled at the end of the day. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have merit, only that it doesn’t have quite as much as it probably should to really stick in the mind. It’s almost like water that’s been warm, but isn’t quite hot enough to do anything with – not as bad as it could be, but even cold water leaves you feeling different, for better or worse. As a movie, The King of Staten Island is a perfectly good time. It’s easily digestible, it has some really good moments of comedy, the characters are mostly all pretty likable, the performances are very naturalistic, and the flow of it is largely steady. However, I’m not sure that being simply digestible and easy to watch is really enough to make a great movie, at least not where Apatow is concerned. Apatow’s movies have always been one kind of digestible or another, but for something with this much potential just sitting there in the margins of the text, King of Staten Island kinda just feels like it’s treading water a bit – by no means only passable or somehow boring, but just above run-of-the-mill for a movie of its type.
One of the reasons the film feels like it doesn’t quite get where it wants to go is due to a bit of a scatter-brained script. The dialogue itself feels very real and naturalistic, and the actors pull it off quite well, but in terms of story, the script tends to pick up and drop off characters as needed without really developing most of them beyond what they mean in terms of Scott’s development. At one point, we know that a girl Scott is sleeping with wants to eventually become a city planner, but we don’t get a whole lot of backstory to go with that – all we know is that she aspires to a good job that Scott doesn’t. What we don’t know is what led her in that particular direction; she says she wants to improve Staten Island somehow, but we never really get a sense of what her vision for it would be. The film’s not about her, so it may not seem like a big deal, but it’s bolstered by the issues the story has with narrative focus. There are a lot of characters in The King of Staten Island, and while they’re all nice and fun to hang out with from a dialogue perspective, the fact that there are so many to cover means less development for the ones that we really should care about. We care enough about how Scott affects his mother, and we learn to care about Ray as he does, but when it comes to the group of friends he hangs out with, none of them get all that much development, even when the seeds for there to be some are planted early on. As it stands, there’s a thread about one of Scott’s friends letting Scott practice his tattoos on him that never really goes anywhere meaningful, even if it sort of seems to just resolve itself at one point. It’s not an inherent sin of movies like this not to develop every supporting character to the point of making it an ensemble piece, but if there are seeds planted early on for development, they need to be allowed to grow and, y’know, develop.
What The King of Staten Island does do pretty well is establish Pete Davidson as someone who could carry a movie on his own. To be fair, he did star in Big Time Adolescence earlier this year, but as I have not yet seen that, this movie is all I have to judge him on as a lead actor. He does pretty well on the whole, never feeling unnatural or like his dialogue doesn’t quite fit with his personal style in this movie. The same applies to just about everyone else (and Apatow’s actors are routinely good with improving little bits here and there), but this is really Davidson’s show, and he brings enough of his A-game for one to excuse the fact that apart from growing his character where it needs to go, the film doesn’t really do much. Another thing the film succeeds at is not beating you over the head with its point; all movies have a message, but with some, it’s almost like the film is trying so hard to get you to notice the point, that it forgets to invite you into the space first and let you see it for yourself. The King of Staten Island may have been able to make its point a little more obvious in hindsight, but the kind of trust it has in the viewer to figure it out rare for movies like this, and it’s nice to see Apatow taking a more hands-off approach to themes, even if those themes aren’t particularly profound or new or told in a new way.
And that’s okay. Noticeable flaws in films like this on can (and should) still be acknowledged, but that doesn’t mean that the need to have a space for more mid-budget movies like this alongside larger blockbusters at the box office is going away. If circumstances permitted, and things were all squared away in regards to this pandemic we’re all stuck in, I would very much have still liked to see this kind of movie in theaters, right next to fare like Mulan and Tenet. As it stands, we are still stuck in this pandemic (wear a mask, people!), so seeking this one out is the only route to discovering it at this point in time.
Look, The King of Staten Island is hardly the best movie of the year, or even one of the top five best movies of the year at this point, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as much worth your time as those are. At the very least, it’s a solid showcase for Pete Davidson as a movie star, and it’s nice to watch a good movie that’s not trying to blow your mind every once in a while. Sure, it’s hardly Apatow’s best, and the writing is a bit scattered, but regardless of what flaws it has, and what it lacks in terms of thematic power, or focus of narrative, I still quite enjoyed it, and I think you would too. Give this one a shot.
I’m giving “The King of Staten Island” a 7.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.