Along with Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Patty Jenkins and Ang Lee, director Judd Apatow came to prominence between the late 1990s and the early 2000s. This means that Apatow is one of the 21st century’s most influential filmmakers. Even so, Apatow is an oddity among his peers, as his work fills out the seemingly less artful corner of cinema. As producer and director, Apatow’s resume includes The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), Superbad (2007) and Pineapple Express (2008). On the surface, these are over-the-top comedies which shouldn’t warrant further analysis. In truth, these films stuck around due to Apatow’s understanding of everyman social anxieties. With The King Of Staten Island (2020), Apatow intends to prove his dramatic range by shining a light on these aspects.
Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) is a 24 year old high school dropout who lives with his widowed mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei). Scott’s late father was a firefighter who died while Scott was still young. The loss affected Scott greatly, as the grief has stunted his growth. He hasn’t matured, he gets high with dead-end friends and he refuses to work, despite having aspirations of being a tattoo artist. To make matters more difficult for him, Scott suffers from ADHD and Crohn’s disease. After a break up with his (sort of) girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley) and his sister Claire’s (Maude Apatow) graduation from high school, Scott’s feelings of inadequacy come to boiling point. This leads him to act out in harmful ways. One of his many stupid decisions leads to his mother meeting Ray (Bill Burr), a divorcee and firefighter. Margie and Ray begin a romantic relationship, much to Scott’s dismay.
As is evident from the premise, the subject matter has a little more dramatic heft than Apatow’s usual content. Considering the story is semi-biographical of Pete Davidson’s own life, it stands to reason there’s emotionally complexity. What must be addressed right off the bat is that fans of Apatow’s earlier work will have their comedy needs met. From scene to scene, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments which fit neatly into Apatow’s classic repertoire. Jokes range from displaying extreme sarcasm, absolute cringe and genuine wit. Apatow’s ability for making hilarious ad-libs sound like conversational dialogue is at full strength here. As is expected from Apatow, there are moments which veer close to being idiotic or depraved, but it’s not without storytelling purpose in this case.
Usually, the more edgy side of Apatow’s work is met with criticism for being borderline offensive. While The King Of Staten Island isn’t free of these moments, they are given justification within the narrative. Even though these sequences are still meant to illicit laughter, the resulting plot developments naturally build to honest consequences. Characters aren’t rewarded for bad behaviour, but instead are forced to genuinely reflect on their actions. It would be easy to have a protagonist like Scott receive the brunt of the punishment, yet Apatow is far more nuanced in his storytelling. All the principle characters are given moments to feel and understand the effects of their actions. Rightfully, everyone is given believable humanity and no one is made out to be truly villainous. The nuance is very subtle, meaning some audiences may still find the characters and their actions off-putting.
Showing that all good people have the capacity for right and wrong is a key theme in the narrative. To be clear, the analysis isn’t as cut and dry as saying a good person can fall from grace and do horrible things. It’s more an exploration of how doing horrible things doesn’t automatically make you a bad person. Instead, the reason certain characters break social rules can be genuinely sympathetic when seen from their point of view. Apatow then allows the opposite point of view to be felt. Interestingly, the opposing view is also crafted with the same level of thought. Nothing is justified, but everything is honest and understood. What’s remarkable is that the audience is endeared towards the characters with every flawed action they take. These may be cartoon characters, but they have recognisable feelings.
Much of the credit must be paid to the efforts of the cast, as Pete Davidson, Bill Burr and Marisa Tomei carry the film. Marisa Tomei has been a talented and respected character actor for decades, yet she continues to grow with every performance. It can be a thankless job portraying the exhausted mother of an immature man-child, but Tomei pulls it off without breaking a sweat. She perfectly balances maternal empathy and frustration without being hateful. Bill Burr has an equally difficult task. He is the protagonist’s primary obstacle, yet he has to remain sympathetic. Happily, Burr exudes the archetype of a surrogate father, as he tries desperately the win the approval of Scott despite being infuriated by him. Pete Davidson is the standout as Scott, which is unsurprising seeing as he’s playing a version of himself. His ability to convey a kind soul hidden underneath a rough exterior is second to none. Granted, if you’re not a fan of Pete Davidson, his work here won’t convert you.
Despite the thought and care which has been put into the characters, thematics and narrative, there is a slight misalignment of the film’s tone. It stands to reason that a comedy-drama needs to walk a fine, but there’s unavoidable whiplash when jumping from the heavily dramatic to the sidesplittingly funny. Namely, there are some moments where the tonal shift is caused by plot points borrowed from unrelated genres. While these sequences are well staged and genuinely engaging, they arguably run counterproductive to the film’s otherwise humanised scale. Even with these few stumbles, the film’s structure still functions. For the most part, Apatow juggles the two extremes gracefully, even building to a sequence which is a beautiful culmination of the entire narrative point. In truth, this gives the film a unique dramatic angle.
It’s not easy for comedy directors to be taken seriously as dramatic storytellers. In most cases, they feel the need to abandon comedy altogether and go as dark and dramatic as possible. While Judd Apatow is certainly expanding his horizons into more complex stories, he isn’t ready to completely abandon comedy. Instead, he wants to show the narrative complexity comedy can reach. Sure, Apatow has ventured into deeper narratives before when he directed Funny People (2009), but The King Of Staten Island represents new heights for the filmmaker. Most impressively, the film shows that Apatow’s understanding of social anxieties are changing at the same rate the world is changing.
Best way to watch it: When you’re feeling low and want to turn the frown upside down (or if you’re undecided on whether or not you want a tattoo).