Few people have had more influence over the comedy genre over the last two decades like Judd Apatow has. A perennial hitmaker who has been intertwined with the rise of untold comedy stars since writing for The Larry Sanders Show and showrunning Freaks and Geeks in the 90s, Apatow's work as a writer, director and producer has defined a generation. The likes of James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segal, Jay Baruchel, Martin Starr and plenty of others have Apatow to thank, even in part, for becoming who they are today.
His newest subject is Pete Davidson, the young Saturday Night Live starlet turned tabloid magnet for his high profile short-lived engagement with Ariana Grande and well-documented depression and drug issues. Davidson has shown promise porting his stand-up comedy to the Weekend Update stage, and his ambitions seem to outstrip the comparatively small platform of Studio 8H. Enter Apatow, who has chosen Davidson to lead his newest directorial effort, The King of Staten Island. This is the first time Apatow has directed a film since 2015’s Trainwreck, which itself sought to transition Amy Schumer from stand-up star to movie star. Her film work since then has been spotty at best, so it isn’t unfair to say Apatow was most successful in bringing her personality and talents to the big screen.
The script, provided by Apatow, Davidson and former SNL writer Dave Sirus, centers around Davidson’s Scott, a depressed and addled 20-something living with his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) and still reeling from the death of his firefighter father. He has dreams of being a tattoo artist, but can’t keep it together long enough to make things work beyond forcing questionable designs on his best buddy Igor (Moises Arias) and refusing to commit to his on again off again girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley). When an irritable firefighter, Ray (Bill Burr), confronts the family after Scott attempts to tattoo his nine year old son, he begins to strike up a relationship with Scott’s mother despite his protestations. Clearly, watching his mother fall in love with another firefighter after the first one tore his heart apart is too much to bear, and any hope he would stitch his life together seems to disappear. But his loved ones are determined to help him through, even if he might not be.
If there’s one aspect of Apatow’s directorial style that remains entirely intact, it’s his penchant for indulgently long running times. There was a time your average studio comedy rarely ran north of 90 minutes, but that’s not a rule Apatow’s ever been particularly interested in sticking to. Indeed, his shortest feature directorial effort to date remains his first film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which clocked in at a scant hour and 56 minutes. With The King of Staten Island, Apatow clocks in with his second longest feature at a whopping 2:17, a running time on par with action blockbusters. It seems Apatow prefers these lengthy films because it gives him time to establish his characters and become intimately aware with their lives. It also gives him plenty of latitude for the riff-fests he’s made famous over the years, letting the camera run long as his actors rattle off machine gun improv. When done well, it can endear you to the lead and his or her (well, usually his) ragtag and colorful cast of burnout buddies (i.e Knocked Up). When it doesn’t work, it quickly becomes an interminable slog (i.e. This is Forty, a film that seems about two hours longer than it actually is, which is in itself already really long). The King of Staten Island tends to land closer to This is Forty than Knocked Up, thanks mostly to a series of side stories and hijinks with his burnout buddies that don’t go anywhere and don’t provide the sort of insight you need for their characters. An attempted robbery here, an extended bit about his kid sister (Apatow’s daughter Maude) going off to college there, a delirious Action Bronson cameo and tons of scenes of people sitting around on couches talking just grinds things to a halt. Once the aimlessness gets out of their system, the second half begins to blossom into something far more engaging, but it’s very much a case of too little, too late.
In general, The King of Staten Island pretty much goes where you expect it to. For all of his reliance on improvisation and modernist humor, Apatow is very much a traditional storyteller at his core. Nothing about what happens to Scott and Ray and Margie is shocking or out of left field. This is usually the reason why Apatow’s films have relied so heavily on the strength of their ensembles. It’s a lot easier to sit around and watch these people sit around when they’re funny and charismatic and exciting to watch. Davidson often fits that role well, but he’s just as often the only bright spot in a lot of his scenes. The likes of Bel Powley, so good in Diary of a Teenage Girl, seems lost, and while Burr and Tomei make their seemingly random romance make sense, there’s just an overall lack of energy for much of the first half. By the time things pick up, in part thanks to the colorful cast of characters who work at Ray’s firehouse, it’s an uphill battle to recapture your attention.
It’s tough to say whether The King of Staten Island will make Pete Davidson more of a superstar. He has an undeniable charisma and magnetism to him that could point to a longer career, but his comedy is so focused on self-destruction and unlikability that it can be tough to endure. It’s also difficult to imagine Davidson playing anything other than a variation on this character in the future, so it will be interesting to see if any sense of diminishing returns begins to set in if he continues on this path and stars in more movies. Apatow has always excelled at melding the emotion with his comedy, which serves Davidson well. It’s possible the film is too hyper-focused on the specificity of Davidson’s life to create a true stepping stone. We don’t really see anything new out of Davidson here; but we shouldn’t necessarily expect that for his first real foray into cinema (bit role in The Jesus Rolls notwithstanding).
As a showcase for Davidson’s talent, The King of Staten Island generally succeeds. He’s a magnetic presence and has a keen understanding of the arrested development of the border of the millennial and zoomer generations. As a film, The King of Staten Island doesn’t quite live up to his talent or approach, wearing out its welcome long before it threatens to become interesting. It has its moments, but the returns have diminished so much that they can’t right the ship. It’s possible that the genre has passed Apatow’s directorial approach by, but he’ll always remain a power player in the star-making mold. He just missed the mark here