The comedies of Judd Apatow are a comforting force, always true to their protagonists while also occasionally being laugh-out-loud funny. They sometimes drag, much like life itself does, but they're refreshingly human, as messy as they can be. His latest work, The King of Staten Island, loosely inspired by Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson's personal life, is trapped in a state of aimlessness, itself a mirror of its leading man, but not exactly an interesting reflection.
Davidson's character here is Scott, a true-to-form Apatovian man-child. He lives with his mother (Marisa Tomei) and spends his days doing nothing but smoking weed, secretly hooking up with a childhood friend (Bel Powley), and poorly tattooing his friend group. His arrested development comes from losing his father, a firefighter, as a child. Now in his mid-twenties — and in part prompted by his mother dating a new man (Bill Burr) and his sister (Maude Apatow) leaving for college — he must start to grapple with the concept of finding a real purpose in life.
Apatow has made a career trading in coming-of-age stories more than straight comedies, whether that's Knocked Up's Ben Stone and Alison Scott having to get their lives together in the face of a pregnancy or Funny People's George Simmons coming to terms with his mortality and life choices. The problem with Davidson's character is that he has no real personality of his own, made worse by the fact that the actor is better in brief flashes of seemingly improvised humor than anything actually scripted.
Davidson performs through half of the role with sleep in his eyes and the other half like a manic millennial imitation of Jerry Seinfeld. As a comedy, The King of Staten Island is frequently boring, and as a drama, it's never quite substantial enough to matter. Despite clocking in at two hours-plus, the film oddly reserves most of its character development — what little there is of it — for lazy montages instead of exploring anything in dramatic depth.
Even the supporting cast feels somewhat wasted. Marisa Tomei's Margie is nothing new on paper — a woman who is finding love years after the loss of her husband — but there's a sincerity to her performance that's truly captivating. When the film takes a moment to focus on her, it plays like the casual and intimate work of Nicole Holofcener, with the kind of chemistry between Tomei and Bill Burr's Ray that Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini had in Enough Said.
Therein lies the problem with The King of Staten Island: At its best and its worst, it always feels derivative of something else (Apatow's work from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to This Is 40 more than anything). Bel Powley's spotty Jersey accent isn't as humorous as, say, Scarlett Johansson's in Don Jon. None of the stoner slacker content works as well as Apatow's work of recent years. And even cinematographer Robert Elswit (best known for his gorgeous work with Paul Thomas Anderson) can't quite elevate the aesthetics beyond a sort of bland single-cam televisual dramedy style.
One of the greatest accusations lobbed at Judd Apatow's oeuvre is that his films are too long. A defense for this is that, more often than not, they earn their length with the overwhelming pleasure of spending time learning who his characters are and watching them grow. They're flawed, they're interesting, and they're relatable. There is some charm to be found within The King of Staten Island, but there's no real personality there, and, God, is it boring to watch something that has no identity of its own.
The King of Staten Island. Starring Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, and Bill Burr. Rated R. 136 minutes. Directed by Judd Apatow. Written by Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, and Dave Sirus. Available on video on demand on June 12.
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