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Judd Apatow doesn’t make the same comedy every time out, but he makes similar comedies. His pattern has crystalized over the years, showing how much the writer-director enjoys analyzing personal, romantic relationships at various stages of life. Knocked Up centered on a relationship of inconvenience, as a one-night fling attached two opposites at the hip. The seemingly semi-autobiographical This is 40 caught up with Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (Apatow’s wife) as they wrestled with parenting, professional lives and maturing.
Apatow’s comfortable commenting on the foibles of interesting relationships, and he seems willing to learn new things about coupling as he presents them to his audiences. What does change, from film to film, is the comedian lead (or leads) that inspire Apatow. Seth Rogen’s scruffy immaturity colors Knocked Up, as Amy Schumer’s crass abrasiveness powers the comedy in Trainwreck (a comedy she wrote for Apatow to direct).
By hitching this particular wagon to Saturday Night Live player Pete Davidson, Judd Apatow finds plenty of new baggage to unpack during The King of Staten Island. Davidson’s personal tragedies provide most of the dramatic detours in King, making for a cathartic movie that might not be as funny as you’d expect.
This is more of a Pete Davidson movie than a Judd Apatow movie.
I say that because even when he has teamed up with the likes of Amy Schumer, Adam Sandler, Steve Carell or Seth Rogen, those comedians very much were working in service of a Judd Apatow movie. The King of Staten Island only exists because of Pete Davidson, and the interesting qualities that Apatow spies in the admittedly intriguing performer.
Davidson would be the first person to admit that he’s an odd fit on NBC’s sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live. The admitted stoner gets most of his laughs by exploiting his own lack of willingness to succeed at life… or even try very hard. And that lack of urgency defines Davidson’s character, Scott, in The King of Staten Island. While his younger sister (Maude Apatow) prepares to head off to college, Scott’s content to smoke pot, hang out with friends, and occupy his mother’s (Marisa Tomei) basement. Scott might have a valid excuses for this stasis. He lost his father, a firefighter who died on the job. And while he’ll joke with buddies that the loss doesn’t affect him, it’s an evident obstacle on Scott’s road forward.
In case you didn’t know, a similar thing happened to Davidson. His father, a firefighter, died in the September 11 terrorist attacks. And while the loss affected him as a child, Davidson has used his father’s death and the subsequent sorrow as fodder for his comedy. Davidson was born and raised on Staten Island. His mother, like Tomei’s character, works as a school nurse. Basically, the line that separates Pete from “Scott” seems nonexistent in The King of Staten Island.
It’s more dramatic and reflective than it is funny.
Because the character Davidson plays so closely resembles the person we (sort of) know him to be, The King of Staten Island often plays like we’ve been invited to a group therapy session where we can watch the comedian untangle his issues. And boy, does he have a lot of them. He holds mild aspirations of being a tattoo artist. His lifelong friend, Kelsey (Bel Powley) wants a relationship, but Scott’s incapable of commitment. Is Davidson a good actor, or has Apatow simply asked him to be himself? We’re never entirely certain.
One reason I’m concluding that Apatow intends King of Staten Island to be more dramatic by design is that he casts credibly funny people around Davidson, but asks them to wrestle with authentic problems, as well, instead of finding the humor in Scott’s situations. You might expect laughs when you realize the blue-collar stiff Tomei starts dating is played by stand-up legend Bill Burr. Or that Pamela Adlon appears as Burr’s ex-wife. But these comedians aren’t asked to be funny. They are still compelling, and rise to the level of the material. It just took almost the entire run-time of the movie for me to realize this isn’t a comedy, intentionally, because Davidson’s baggage deflates any true belly laughs.
It’s different enough to stay interesting.
And yet, Pete Davidson’s interesting. He maintains a career in entertainment because he’s different from what’s normally presented by the Hollywood machine, and The King of Staten Island stands apart from Apatow’s past productions because it wraps its arms around everything that Davidson has to offer.
This means detours into petty theft (during a lengthy scene, Davidson fails to play lookout while his idiot friends unsuccessfully rob a neighborhood drug store), and sidetracks into honest conversations regarding depression, mental health and honoring the memories of a deceased parent. But by shining its light on Davidson, Apatow himself leaves his California comfort zone and captures the authenticity of the truly unique borough of Staten Island. Existing in the shadow of Manhattan, Staten Island fiercely adopts an underdog identity that’s prevalent in the complications facing Apatow’s King characters. Even when he’s addressing relationship issues that he has encountered in previous films, Apatow’s able to make them appear different because he’s filtering them through the grungy lens of this offbeat environment.
Ultimately, The King of Staten Island very much ends up being the kind of movie one would make if they asked Pete Davidson a litany of questions about his life, then filmed the answers. If you don’t care, you might not connect. There’s literally an early scene at a wedding where one character tells Scott, “Your dark sense of humor doesn’t work for me.” It might not be a huge stretch for Davidson, but it’s the natural progression for Apatow, meaning you might laugh, cry, or encounter a mixture of the two.