The King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island is exhausting and not in the way that Judd Apatow & Pete Davidson likely intended it to be.

Note: an abridged version of this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to a screener provided by the film’s UK distributor, Universal Pictures.

It is a clichéd truism universally acknowledged that Judd Apatow’s editors need to collectively grow a set of spines, assuming of course he’s even hired editors in the first place and hasn’t just been Soderbergh-ing his films under various pseudonyms over the last two decades.  It’s an observation/criticism which has, at this point, been beaten more than an entire factory of dead horses but one that nonetheless sticks to the man’s output.  He admittedly does have a reason for his films permanently pushing past the two-hour mark – his sole effort to come in under 120 minutes is his debut, 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, at a svelte 116 – in that they are lackadaisical hangout movies.  They stretch their legs through extraneous characters, scenes, entire plot-threads, and haphazard improv because the viewer is meant to relax into the lives of their protagonists, vibe, just hang with the largely carefree atmosphere and, much like their man-children protagonists, wait for outside circumstances to push them towards development.

Of course, there’s a fine line where artistic intent just crosses over into aimless patience-testing indulgence and Apatow has made a career of building expensive condos-to-let on the wrong side of that line.  It’s dead frustrating, too, because he and his various pet projects – the other clichéd truism being that Apatow films function more as carefully-calibrated demo reels to present their various stars (Steve Carrell, Seth Rogen, Amy Schumer) as the next big comedy sensation by playing to their strengths – demonstrate fine eyes for both comedy and human interaction (admittedly still filtered through Hollywood distortion and often only afforded to White men) that get lost amongst the occasionally intolerable flab.  He still makes fine and often fun movies, to be perfectly clear, but I find myself equally pondering how much better they’d be if this dialogue exchange were tightened up, if these useless characters were ejected entirely, if this flailing improv sequence were rightly left on the cutting room floor.

The King of Staten Island is 136 minutes long.  Whilst still somewhat objectionable sans context of the rest of the film, that’s only three minutes longer than This is 40 (133) and is a full ten shorter than Funny People was (146).  Yet, brutally honestly, it drags way harder than both of those prior works.  Staten Island is an utterly fucking exhausting movie to sit through, especially at home, but this is at least somewhat by design.  The stage being set by our cold open in which Pete Davidson’s Scott, lensed with this distractingly washed out colour palette by Academy Award winner Robert Elswit of all people, turns up the volume on his car stereo, closes his eyes, lets go of the steering wheel and floors the gas pedal in an impulsive suicide attempt.  He comes to his senses just in time to veer out of the way of an unrelated car-wreck, sideswiping another two cars in the process, escaping unharmed and apologising to no-one as the title card appears.  We’re in Serious Apatow territory, folks.

Unsurprisingly, much of that is to do with Apatow’s latest muse.  Davidson is a divisive but rising comic who’s been frank in his work about struggling with bipolar disorder, depression, Crohn’s disease, and the trauma of his firefighter dad being a victim of the 9/11 attacks, and his collaboration with Apatow (plus co-writer Dave Sirus) draws on all that for a semi-autobiographical character study.  Scott is a 24-year-old bipolar ADD high school dropout whose firefighter father died in a blaze when Scott was just 7, a grief he still hasn’t processed, with an arrested development where he spends his days bumming around Staten Island smoking lots of weed alongside his similarly burnt-out friends adamantly refusing to grow up and figure his shit out.  Other than wanting to be a tattoo artist, he doesn’t seem to have any drive or desire to move out of this comfort-hole he’s burrowed himself into, still living with his exhausted unappreciated mother (Marisa Tomei) and making impulsively self-destructive decisions on a frequent basis.  All of that comes to a head when his mother starts dating Ray (Bill Burr), a divorced hard-ass who also happens to be a firefighter.

As you can probably tell, in addition to all the aspects shared by Davidson himself, Scott has many of the recurring traits of your typical Apatow-ian protagonist.  That, much like the often dour and muted tone, seems to rather be the point with Apatow attempting to deconstruct the jovial vibes he pushed through his protagonists in films like Virgin and Knocked Up by demonstrating that it might not actually be all that fun to waste your 20s away in a perpetual stoned adolescence with the guys.  Scott’s friends aren’t fun wasters like Ben Stone’s and their mild-hazing burnout group dynamic is not portrayed as in the least bit healthy.  Scott’s relentless fuck-up-ery is less charming than Amy Townsend’s and his constant antagonism and sabotage of his mother’s newfound happiness with Ray takes the point being made by George Simmons and just amplifies it even louder for the people in the back.

But setting aside the fact that Apatow’s movies never really glorified their protagonists (or their circle of friends) as much as his staunchest critics insist, all he’s really doing is turning on the grey filter of his camera lens and bringing the energy down to a depressive plod.  There’s not a lot of new deconstructive ground being broken here.  This is still a Judd Apatow movie, but lacking the energy, raunch and humour of his earlier work.  Staten Island barely registers as a comedy, frankly.  There are remarkably few laughs in this thing and the more outwardly comedic stretches clash real hard with the otherwise insular sombre tone of the rest of the film.  A tense botched robbery keeps being interrupted by Davidson mugging which takes away from the scene’s seriousness, there’s a restaurant fight club that has nothing to do with anything, and Action Bronson’s cameo as the world’s most nonchalant gunshot/stab-wound victim feels like airlifted from an entirely different movie.  (This is also what I mean by “Judd Apatow needs editors,” a script editor would’ve hopefully pointed out how tonally ill-fitting all of these examples are and ordered some cuts.)

It’s like an Oscar Bait version of an Apatow movie, particularly since a lot of his usual somewhat problematic Apatow-isms are played unquestioningly straighter than he’d care to admit.  Are you sick of seeing him and his cohorts only able to envision female leads as nags with barely-developed lives of their own who roll their eyes at the male lead’s shit whilst pushing them to be better, ending the film as a prize won to denote the protagonist’s character growth, and played by a charming actress well underserved by the material?  Well, that’s one trope Apatow isn’t ready to let go of and considers so nice he’s used it twice!  (Credit to Bel Powley, as the best friend Scott has casual sex with, and Tomei for trying their absolute hardest to bring interiority and dimension to characters the film just is not particularly interested in.)  There’s a mild disdain for most of the working class characters who crop up around the film’s narrative that’s also reflective of his prior works.  And whilst the man may be an outspoken liberal in real life, his films continue to hold rather conservative and traditionally masculine values which proceed to overtake the last third once Scott winds up substituting his criminal-adjacent surrogate family for Ray’s surrogate family of firefighters.

None of that paragraph is what I’m dinging Staten Island for, just to be clear.  In fact, that aforementioned final third with the unquestioned masculine frat-ness of the firefighters contains most of the film’s genuinely affecting dramatic scenes.  When Scott learns more about his father from an aging member (a warm Steve Buscemi) who worked alongside the man, it’s properly moving.  No, what I am dinging Staten Island for is how much of an utter slog it is to get to that point.  Too many narrative dead ends, too many endlessly restated points and character beats with precious little insight, too many simply uninteresting and unentertaining side characters we’re forced through in order to make it to the good stuff, all delivered in the same Xanax-numbed tone.  It’s kinda like the movie equivalent of listening to a Drake album, specifically a Views or Scorpion.

I appreciate the challenge Apatow and Davidson set themselves here.  Fact of the matter is that making an empathetic narrative about self-destructive depression and trauma, rather than treating them as either semi-romanticised tragedy or a semi-tasteless caricature for easy gags (just going to leave this hyperlink to a clip of Ted from Scrubs here for no reason), is really hard, especially so in comedies.  You need to treat the conditions with care and respect, of course, but then you risk smothering your work in a suffocating heaviness and solemnity that not only is not accurate to the lived day-to-day experiences of depression (speaking from experience) but also ends up thuddingly one-note, insincere and exhausting for the wrong reasons.  That’s the trap Apatow falls headfirst into because his languid vibe approach to filmmaking and storytelling naturally defuses anything in the way of conflict, rising tension or drive until the last closing stretch and that’s killer to a story like this.  It needs some energy, like in BoJack Horseman and Fleabag, or a masterful control of subtle yet devastatingly effective shifts in tone and mood, like Antonio Campos brought to Christine, or at least constantly compelling characters and psychological insight so the waiting for everyone to get their shit together (or not) doesn’t feel like running out the clock, something those three cited examples execute flawlessly.  Those three are also way more interesting to look at since they don’t just desaturate the same flatly-composed images and call it a day.

What’s most frustrating is that there are things to recommend about The King of Staten Island.  Davidson still turns out to be an extremely limited performer who just doesn’t have the range or energy to hold up a 136 minute film like Apatow clearly hopes he will, but Tomei and Powley are great, as mentioned, whilst Bill Burr is fantastic as Scott’s prospective new stepfather, equal parts a profane no-shit hard-ass and a hurting emotionally vulnerable wounded soul struggling to cling onto what little happiness he can find.  (Honestly, I’d be way more interested in an Apatow vehicle with Burr in the lead.)  There are a few montages which brilliantly break the static haze of everything else, compressing character development in a manner that’s rather affecting and demonstrates Apatow really could make a more focussed movie if he wanted to.  The last third does have some moving sequences and intermittently there are these insightful moments about what it would be like to live Scott’s life; smoking away your depression, the little landmines of unresolved anger and hurt people trying their best to connect with you can accidentally step on, the poisonous comfort of remaining enthralled to one’s depression for so long.

But all of that, all of the payoff and the quality performances and the glimpses of a properly great and insightful version of this film, ends up lost in the unfocussed mush of Apatow’s signature filmmaking style rendered morose.  I relate a lot more to the subjects and situations that Scott finds himself in than I feel comfortable admitting, but that bloated glum malaise suffocates any potential power that Staten Island infrequently displays.  Judd Apatow badly needs editors.

The King of Staten Island is available now on Digital and will be released on DVD & Blu-Ray from Monday.

Callum Petch can’t even swim in these waves they’ve made.

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