Judd Apatow’s latest as a director, The King of Staten Island, was one of many 2020 movies due a theatrical debut, before the ongoing effects of Covid-19 saw it pivot to a ‘premium’ (i.e. expensive) rent-at-home release. Multiplexes haven’t missed out: it’s impossible to imagine this lacklustre dramedy sparking much interest at the box office.
The writer/director and producing powerhouse has a track record for launching talent, from turning Steve Carell into a movie star in The 40-Year-Old Virgin to establishing Seth Rogen’s leading man credentials in Knocked Up. Most recently, in 2015, he kicked off Amy Schumer’s big-screen career with Trainwreck, a problematic romcom that still scored its fair share of laughs (and made Schumer an instant big-screen player).
It feels unlikely that The King Of Staten Island is going to gift its star Pete Davidson with the same trajectory. Davidson also serves as a writer here (like Schumer on Trainwreck), and while the material is very personal, it’s not strictly autobiographical. Apatow has said, “It didn’t happen, but it’s how Pete feels.” Both Davidson and his character Scott lost their firefighter fathers at a young age: Davidson’s father died serving during 9/11; Scott’s father while attending an unspecified fire. But despite the raw and powerful subject matter, The King Of Staten Island never really connects emotionally.
Davidson, on this evidence, lacks the Rogen-ish charm to make an insufferable protagonist likeable. Scott is a wannabe tattoo artist dwelling in his mother Margie’s (Marisa Tomei) basement. When he’s not getting high and/or doodling on his friends’ torsos in permanent ink, he’s not doing much at all. His sofa-bound life goes into a tailspin when his younger sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), leaves for college, and Margie starts dating Ray (Bill Burr), who also happens to be a firefighter.
The wider ensemble is the film’s biggest strength: Tomei has a nice line in maternal exasperation, Burr is likeably gruff as an unwelcome stand-in dad, and Maude Apatow placates qualms of nepotism. Bel Powley (The Diary Of A Teenage Girl) convinces as Scott’s sort-of girlfriend, and Steve Buscemi brings a crumpled charm as a senior fire chief. None of Pete’s pals makes a lasting impression, but Davidson shines brightest when Scott’s forced to spend time with Ray’s young children.
Staten Island itself provides an effective backdrop; the unloved borough that’s a ferry ride from Manhattan feels precisely sketched, perhaps because it was where Davidson himself grew up. But it’s the only note in the film that feels truly authentic. Despite the script’s roots in Davidson’s own life, much of it fails to ring true.
It’s not even a terrible film; there’s just very little to warrant a recommendation. There are low-key laughs, but as a comedy it’s no gutbuster; there are a handful of nicely observed character moments, but none of the catharsis you’d expect from a drama reckoning with sacrifice and legacy. That it fails on those terms despite a generous two-hour-plus runtime is the biggest disappointment.
It’s said of Scott’s father that “he got away with so much shit because he was so friggin’ likeable”. The King Of Staten Island doesn’t earn the same exemption.