Judd Apatow is the king of white troubled characters; from Trainwreck to Funny People. In his latest dark comedy, a bid for therapeutic release through art, he welcomes comparisons to Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy; an inspired biopic where Shia LaBeouf played his real-life father, the instigator to his troubled childhood. The King of Staten Island, however, operates more conventionally. Here, troubled SNL star Pete Davidson portrays Scott; a depressed and apathetic 24-year old living with his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) on Staten Island. The unemployed, stoned, and ineptly aspiring tattoo artist has been in arrested development since the death of his firefighter father 17 years ago. Though Apatow’s The King of Staten Island eventually discovers a path from repressed grief to redemption, it’s a tonally meandering star vehicle that ever-so-slowly tries to find meaning beyond Davidson’s sardonic sense of humor.
In fact, in tone and quality, The King of Staten Island is very much a tale of two films. In the first hour, Scott navigates through his life rudderless. At times suicidal, in the opening scene he closes his eyes while driving in a bid to end his life, he hangs with a group of stoners and his on-again off-again girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley); who immensely cares for him and desperately waits for his reciprocated love. Moreover, his mother Margie operates a shrine dedicated to his deceased father in their living room; adorned with his picture; a folded American flag; and other firefighter memorabilia. The production design by Kevin Thompson—expressing a house basically trapped in amber since a patriarch’s death—demonstrates the ways Margie and Scott have struggled to move on.
In their uneven relationship, Margie often enables Scott by overlooking his wayward lifestyle. However, when his younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow, the director’s daughter) heads to college and his mother begins dating a tempestuous divorced firefighter Ray (Bill Burr)—after Scott tries to tattoo his son in the woods—his once suspended development crumbles into disarray.
The chaotic first act to Apatow’s dark comedy runs interminably long. Mostly because Davidson isn’t well-equipped to shoulder a film solely on his droll comedic tics. Furthermore, the script written by Apatow, Davidson, and Dave Sirus meanders through superfluous dialogue concerning the municipal pride of Staten Island; a pointless college party; and a half-baked plan to rob a pharmacy induced by superfluous characters. While certainly Apatow hoped the overlong first half would match the fecklessness of Scott’s life, it’s a hard slog. Made even more nauseating by Scott’s repeated attempts to end the relationship between his mother and Ray, where he assumes a zealotry that’s too cruel to garner any laughs. Which is compounded by Apatow’s inability to convert Davidson’s real-life depression into anything comedic beyond the star’s baneful banter.
The King of Staten Island, instead, discovers its heart during its final 75 minutes, allowing Davidson to shine partly because he hands the wheel of his vehicle over to Buscemi and Burr. In another example of stranger than fiction, Buscemi plays the chief of Ray’s firehouse. Of course, it’s well known that the star once worked as a firefighter in real life, even volunteering with his old unit after the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Seeing him here, when in one scene he watches as the cast combats a blaze, adds greater authenticity and warmth to a dark comedy leaning too far left into the former descriptor. Tomei also gives an endearing performance as a mother searching for independence. It’s enough to wish she was given greater screen time rather than Apatow holding the lens on other unimaginative characters, and then dreaming up a convoluted one-sided love affair between Scott and Kelsey, which affords the latter little purpose not defined by the former.
Moreover, the director enlists Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood; Michael Clayton; Good Night, and Good Luck) as cinematographer. His subtle use of color; shade; and texture encapsulates Scott’s downturn mood—even when he eventually opens himself emotionally—and the blue collar tone of Staten Island. Giving the film a visual language worth watching when the action on screen appears drably unwatchable. A great film might exist among the 136 minutes making up The King of Staten Island; a therapeutic tale which Davidson deserves credit for facing. But without a sense of direction in the dark comedy’s first half, the heartfelt second half nearly arrives unnoticed.
The King of Staten Island is available on VOD beginning June 12th.