by Jason Osiason
From its very beginning, The King of Staten Island captures a surprising indie sensibility with a cathartic, almost-suicide attempt with Pete Davidson’s character Scott that transitions only slightly comedic. From that moment on, the viewer realizes The King of Staten Island is entering a surprisingly new dramatic territory for Judd Apatow. It is quite easily his most poignant and stripped-down movie to date. Apatow tosses his signature need for sharply accessible R-rated crude humor, and instead made a sobering and multi-faceted character study with enough natural interjected comedy to make it still feel like an Apatow movie. Pete Davidson’s performance lives to all the potential foresaw in him. Davidson always seemed like the type of performer capable of hitting unparalleled dramatic greatness in competent hands, and Judd Apatow is just that filmmaker. It is a raw and vulnerable performance quite unlike we have seen before from Davidson. His character Scott is a 24-year old high school dropout tormented by his firefighter father’s death at an early age that distracted him from any new direction in life. Davidson lays out of all of his real-life personality traits raw on screen, and quite like the real Davidson, finds the humor in all of his encounters. Still, he also has his fair share of toxic tendencies, such as manipulating and taking advantage of his friends and loved ones for his own selfish needs. Still, he also has a sweet, empathic, and endearing side that draws all types of people around him in a close circle.
Scott copes with his grief with an obsession with tattoo art. A hobby that goes far beyond the design elements and what each one with represents. Scott enjoys the sense of pain and relief of a needle hitting his body, but it’s a once amateur hobby that has now dominated his life and now seeks a local apprenticeship. He continuously experiments on friends and all people around him who are willing or afraid to say no to him, including one scene where Davidson’s character experiments on a 9-year old who ends up connected to his life soon closer than he ever anticipated. There were times when his career aspirations in tattoo art are not compelling enough subject matter to drive the picture, but it works for the most part. My mind did wonder though how an evolution to his real-life career in comedy might have served the film instead.
The film is sometimes at odds with its intended aimlessness. There are mostly self-serving nitpicks, but I think it needed to build stronger character and story arcs, as well as generate more narrative stakes to disallow it from feeling momentarily meandering. There are scenes of dialogue or scenes entirely that felt like deleted scenes unable to be elevated or well-implemented. This is where Apatow has trouble balancing the rich content and characters to make it feel fully alive as it did in its first half. The second half as its fair share of narrative quibbles, but it also contains sequences inside firehouse that are the shining light of Judd Apatow’s entire career.
Judd Apatow also fascinatingly captures Scott’s aimlessness towards life, his impending anxieties towards adulthood, the grief of his late father’s death, and the self-deprecating nature regarding his mental health. Davidson’s character wants to explore in a world that he thinks is working against him. Instead, it feels like a presentation of Davidson’s demons and insecurities, while only certain aspects such as the life-changing loss of a parent and how to come to grips when allowing a new parental figure into your life (played by the excellent Bill Burr) get the attention they deserve. In fact, we probably got a bit too much of the dynamic between Bill Burr’s character and Davidson despite the material being excellent and seemingly well-served with what Apatow and Davidson likely intended to accomplish. I wanted a film that also dug deeper into Davidson’s unstable mental psyche that the picture repeatedly hinted at. There were also relationship arcs such as the ones between his misfit friends that felt underdeveloped. This dynamic included a tonally jarring and unneeded robbery scene that is also undoubtedly that darkest material Judd Apatow has ever lensed. I also wish we saw a bit more from Scott’s mother’s perspective, played by the incredible Marisa Tomei.
Still, the film’s only real misfire was not fully developing Scott’s relationship with his local fling played by the brilliant Bel Powley. It’s a missed opportunity that could have drove the picture home and make it feel wholly distinctive. Some of the best comings of age movies in recent years, such as The Spectacular Now, Call Me By Your Name, Youth in Revolt, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Lady Bird achieved that. Still, The King of Staten Island did not dedicate the time and care that the story that aspect deserved. Instead, Apatow uses the relationship as a preface for Scott’s debilitating mental health and passes it off to Bel’s character that he’s being just a shitty person When the movie decides to rebound back on their dynamic, it feels almost unearned and unmoving.
All in all, The King of Staten Island is a successful and sometimes profound motion picture that will jumpstart Pete Davidson’s career, but I will always feel the film itself would be destined for greatness if they kept attempting to reshape it. [B+]