Judd Apatow is one of the toughest filmmakers to peg. Though the producer-director cut his cinematic teeth on seemingly low-brow, slightly raunchy fare, his best films (This Is 40 and, to a lesser extent, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) surprise you with a richness of characterization and an underlying sweetness, especially in their second halves.
The King of Staten Island is no different. On first glance, it's a stoner comedy about a 24-year-old underachiever still living at home with his mom, palling around with fellow deadbeats and doing little to achieve his dream of becoming a tattoo artist. But if you're already an Apatow fan – and have the patience for a 136-minute movie that hits more than its share of false notes – you might fall in love with this eponymous, lovable loser.
The "King" in question is Scott, and he's portrayed in a surprisingly tender way by Saturday Night Live's Pete Davidson, who co-wrote the script with Apatow and Dave Sirus and based the story largely on his own life. Like his character, Davidson was born in Staten Island, and he and the entire movie are imbued with a strong sense of place, as if the island is another one of Scott's troubled pals.
The borough's reputation is bruised, and so is Scott. He is haunted by the loss of his firefighter father, who died when Scott was young, and he's jealous of his successful sister (portrayed by Maude Apatow, the director's daughter) and his mother (Marisa Tomei). He's particularly angry about his mom's new boyfriend (renowned stand-up comic Bill Burr), who is also a fireman.
"There's, like, something wrong with me, like mentally," he tells his part-time girlfriend, played affectionately by Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl). "I'm not OK up there. You know, like, I get all mad, acting like crazy, and I make really insane, impulsive decisions. ... I'm scared of myself."
But Apatow is not scared. Indeed, he dives fearlessly into the material, exploring myriad humorous and dramatic avenues in a meandering, chatty fashion. While that almost anarchical sense of structure might be admired on a certain level, it leads to lengthy sections of emotional drift and lack of narrative momentum. And, regrettably, by the time an endearing but underused Steve Buscemi takes center stage toward the end, I was exhausted by the tonal switches, hip-hop musical interludes and a silly subplot involving Scott's friends that is both contrived and unresolved.
When Scott seeks to sabotage his mom's relationship with Ray by telling her all the bad biographic tidbits he's discovered, she confronts her son. "It's like you picked up all these little pieces of information," she tells him. "They're fragments."
So too is The King of Staten Island. Though many of its fragments are funny and produce an emotional payoff, the hard truth is that Apatow's film, just like its title character, is unexpectedly lovable but a bit broken.
– This story appears in the June 10, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly newsletters.