Judd Apatow’s latest offering stars SNL phenom Pete Davidson as Scott, a twenty-four-year-old burnout who, reeling from the trauma of his firefighter father’s death seventeen years ago, still lives with his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei). His primary ambition, besides getting high with his friends, is to open a tattoo parlor/restaurant hybrid, an idea that not even his stoner coterie can endorse as anything but asinine. The catalyst for Scott’s metamorphosis arrives in the form of Ray (Bill Burr), a firefighter whose new romance with Margie forces Scott finally to make something of his life. Rounding out the cast is Bel Powley as Kelsey, Scott’s sexual partner who wants more out of their relationship than Scott can muster, and Maude Apatow as Claire, Scott’s more ambitious younger sister who manages to get into college and strike out on her own.
Despite the autobiographical elements of the film tied to Davidson’s own life, “The King of Staten Island” follows the same basic template as almost every other Judd Apatow movie. A pot-smoking man-child loser suddenly is thrust into a situation that forces him to mature. And after some relationships hit rough water, eventually the man-child is able to rectify the issues with the people he cares about. The film then ends perhaps not necessarily with total financial or professional fulfillment, but the protagonist, with all of his personal issues solved, is in a space where he is able finally to embark on a path of reasonable social competency. The man-child is on a path to manhood.
The difference with this film, however, is that it is not merely love pitfalls or laziness that Scott is trying to overcome. Rather, the story is an excavation of deeply buried emotional trauma and Scott’s efforts to overcome his mental anguish stemming from the long-ago death of his beloved father. It is territory that Apatow, who usually focuses on external interpersonal relationships, has not previously explored. His first stab at tacking psychological traumas, unfortunately, is not entirely successful, and for that reason, the film suffers.
The primary issue is how the film depicts Scott’s triumph over his numerous inner demons: it is the same exact methodology that the characters of other Apatow movies use to solve their problems—i.e., after a couple weeks of bonding between the main characters and a few heartfelt conversations, the difficulties are solved. But, as mentioned before, this film does not deal with just commitment or responsibility; it is not “Knocked Up”, where Seth Rogen just has to put down the bong, get up on his feet, and then prove his newfound commitment to responsibility. The problems that Scott has requires so much more: his father’s death has left him with depression, ADD, anxiety at having other people make fun of him for his ADD, and such low self-esteem that he cannot even express his feelings to the girl he has loved for fourteen years because he is afraid that an expression of his true feelings inevitably will doom the relationship. All of this has been growing in him for seventeen years. He is pretty deeply messed up, in other words. A newfound friendship with Ray, no matter how genuine, and a few honest conversations regarding his father are not enough realistically to offset that. It requires a much more daunting self-reckoning to overcome seventeen years of buried grief and feelings of inadequacy and “The King of Staten Island” fails to deliver on that central premise. As a result, the overarching transformation of Scott’s character feels disingenuous and ungrounded. The film, however charming in other ways, cannot overcome that fatal flaw.
Compounding this issue are Pete Davidson’s limitations as a performer. For the most part, he is satisfactory. He is totally believable and in his element as a stoner bro who lays the blame for the shortcomings in his life on everything and everyone but himself. Davidson even is quite good at portraying one who has recently overcome long-term emotional/mental problems: his declaration of love for the character Kelsey is shy, subdued, and heartfelt—exactly as it should be. Yet, Davidson seems able only to act the two extremes, either as someone overwhelmed by inner turmoil or as someone who recently triumphed over it. When Scott is supposed to be in the transitional period, in identifying his demons and combatting them one by one, Davidson appears to flit in between the two extremes, rather than approaching each of the character’s problems with the complexity and nuance required for such an arc to be believable. The character’s struggles necessitate an entirely different mode and tone than the two variations that Davidson utilizes.
Finally (and I hate to put it so bluntly, but there is no way around it), the fact remains that Scott is simply not that interesting of a character, especially when surrounded (and outshone) by such an excellent secondary cast. The most engrossing of the characters is Margie, who deserves to be the main focus of the movie. Not only did she have to deal with her own trauma after her husband’s death, but she had to deal maternally with Scott’s subsequent trauma, raise both him and his sister as a single mom, and cope with her self-consigned loneliness as a response to her sudden widowhood. Her travails and eventual triumph by finding new love and finally seeing her son forge his own way would have been a beautiful story of redemption—one that Marisa Tomei would appear to have been able to pull off with gusto. Her performance in this movie was excellent, endearing her character with an anguished perseverance and hopefulness. The story also would have given Maude Apatow’s character, Claire, a more well-defined purpose, since it is her leaving for college that makes Margie’s solitude unbearable, thus leading her to accept Ray’s invitation for lunch. Instead, Claire is rendered little more than cameo window-dressing in this movie: her overtures to Scott are ignored and they are not even afforded a reconciliatory scene together at the end. Heck, even Kelsey would have made a better lead than Scott. Instead of succumbing to her boredom with her friends’ lifestyle and the emotional shallowness of Scott, she decides to leave Staten Island by getting a job in city planning. She is likeable and proactive, and her character’s development actually feels satisfying. But we are stuck with Scott, and all the mediocrity his story brings.
In all, this analysis may sound rather harsh on a film that, admittedly, will entertain fans of both Apatow or Davidson. It is just that with all of its potential, I cannot help but feel that “The King of Staten Island” could have been so much more.