THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND (dir. Judd Apatow): Film review

Pete Davidson as Scott in THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND, directed by Judd Apatow.

There’s a lovely initialism commonly used on the Internet: YMMV, which stands for “your mileage may vary.” It’s frequently used to describe films that may not have broad appeal but are worth giving a look, or a song that has a great melody but is played with bagpipes, or an exotic dish that, despite having a dense flavor profile, is still made out of fetal bunnies or something of the like. It’s a great qualifier, really. I’m a pretty big fan. However, YMMV.

Such a concept is aptly applied to the work of Pete Davidson, the popular young comedian/SNL cast member/ex-Ariana Grande fiancé. A lot of people really love his work, and a lot of great talents really love working with him. Me? I never understood the appeal. Nothing against the guy (well, him being the source for the term “big dick energy” is something I wish I could purge from my brain folds), but I never really got his humor. That, in conjunction with the fact that I tend to run out of patience for the indulgences of Judd Apatow’s filmmaking, left me pretty hesitant to watch The King of Staten Island, Apatow’s overlong, semi-biographical dramedy about Davidson stand-in, Scott Carlin.

Scott is a 24 year-old burnout who spends most of his days getting stoned in his mom’s basement. His father, a fireman, died in a building collapse when Scott was just seven. That, in conjunction with some mental issues and a bad case of Crohn’s disease has left Scott in a state of arrested development. His younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow) is about to head off to college, leaving Scott and his mom (Marisa Tomei) alone in their home. This is all well and good for Scott, who delays responsibility by hanging on to his “one day” dream of opening a tattoo parlor/restaurant combo. For his mom, not so much.

When a misguided tattooing attempt draws the ire of a local man named Ray (Bill Burr), it isn’t long before this single father and Mama Carlin start dating, much to the chagrin of Scott himself, who sees his mother’s romantic life as a threat to the memory of his father. This is padded out to nearly two and a half hours by a variety of side plots (including a violent pharmacy robbery, a restaurant job that makes the staff fistfight for tips, and a half-written romance involving city planning), each of which are entertaining and often quite funny in a vacuum, but all of which add to the unwieldy nature of a 137 minute comedy.

Entering this film as a bit of a Davidson skeptic was an interesting experience. While I still don’t fully understand his style of humor, there’s no denying that he gives a grand performance here. While I cannot (and will not) comment on the size of his dick energy, I can comfortably state that he’s got some considerable dramatic chops. Maybe I’m just a sucker for films about men exploring their emotions (a rarity — and a personal struggle of my own), but I found myself rather moved by the arc his character undergoes. Equally impressive is Bill Burr as a man attempting to act as a father figure to young Scott but finding his own emotional hang-ups to be equally burdensome.

Our female leads, Marisa Tomei and Bel Powley, make great work out of criminally small characters. While it does feel like missed opportunities on both counts — both fuel the narratives of our leading men, but with little of their own narrative thrust — how can I possibly lament that this unfathomably long movie isn’t longer? If anything, it’s indicative of how badly this needed a rewrite. The phrase is “kill your darlings,” Mr. Apatow, not “make ghosts of two of your main characters so you can squeeze in a subplot about the Tinder adventures of a supremely minor character who has no bearing on the plot whatsoever.”

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this moving tale of a delayed coming of age. I was also impressed with the work of a performer for whom I’ve never really had a taste. Unfortunately, of the three indulgences that work to sink most Apatow movies (needlessly long runtime, insistence on giving his entire real-life family their own set of characters/arcs, clumsily jamming celebrity cameos into the story where they only serve to feel like name drops), the most annoying one remains: There’s just no reason for a comedy to exceed 90 minutes, let alone 137. Hire a script editor, dude.

Streaming on select platforms starting June 12, 2020

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