Directed by: Judd Apatow
Written by: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson and Dave Sirus
Starring: Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow and Steve Buscemi
Since the turn of the millennium Judd Apatow has been the patron saint of American comedy. A self-made man, by the time he was 31 he was executive producer on the now cult television show Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000). Apatow also wrote and directed a handful of episodes of the short-lived TV show that sparked the careers of Linda Cardellini, James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel.
Five years later, Apatow made his first venture into directing a feature film with The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), which launched the career of Steve Carrell, coming off the back of his iconic role as Brick Tamland in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), a film Apatow produced. Since then, there have been two constants in a feature film directed by Apatow. Thematically the films have been about arrested development of some kind. His main character will either have to overcome a personal crisis; an unplanned pregnancy in Knocked Up (2007) or a cancer diagnosis in Funny People (2009). Or they will have to overcome an emotional barrier; fear of growing-old in This is 40 (2012) or fear of commitment in Trainwreck (2015). The second constant is that major roles will be inhabited by up and coming comics. The Freaks and Geeks played alumni secondary characters in Knocked Up with Seth Rogen taking the lead role. He was an early advocate of Jonah Hill’s talents. Hill now has two oscar nominations under his belt. More recently he cast Amy Schumer in her first lead role in 2015’s Trainwreck.
In his latest film, The King of Staten Island, the film’s protagonist must, surprise-surprise, overcome a personal tragedy AND the emotional defence mechanism he has set-up in order to cope with the tragedy. Apatow, again, gives centre stage to a young up-and-coming comic. In this case Pete Davidson, who at this point seems to have already made a name for himself Stateside as one of the more popular performers on Saturday Night Live. So much so that he can already add Ariana Grande to his list of ex-girlfriends, having been engaged to the pop singer for five months back in 2018.
Davidson, who wrote the script along with Apatow and Dave Sirus, in this instance plays a version of himself. Many autobiographical elements have been written into the script. Davidson plays Scott Carlin, a 26 year old man-child whose tragic childhood has had long-lasting psychological effects. Davidson lost his father, a firefighter who died during the 9/11 terror attacks, he was 7 at the time. Davidson has struggled since with his mental health, ADHD and Crohn’s disease all of which he medicates with marijuana. These are also Scott’s troubles. It is poignant, therefore, that in the first scene we witness Scott in the midst of a suicide attempt. He closes his eyes on a freeway before pulling out at the very last second, clipping the car in front of him. Apatow and Davidson set a precedent, but everything is dialled back from there.
In fact, the incident is not addressed for the rest of the film. We can see Scott has confidence issues and has a negative worldview. He is also at his funniest when he practices self-deprecation and expresses this worldview. Character development is usually accelerated through the prism of comedy rather than drama. The drama comes in when Scott pushes back at the outside forces asking him to confront his problems. The film really hinges on it’s main character. Scott is charming and likeable one minute and deeply annoying and frustrating the next. Sure enough, the same goes for the film.
Aside from Davidson’s central performance, the supporting players, Marisa Tomei as his mother, Bill Burr as his want-to-be stepfather, Maude Apatow as his sister and Bel Powley as his secret girlfriend, all put in comically intelligent performances with just the right amount of levity Apatow is after to keep his dramedy ticking over. Each, in their own way, are trying to help Scott become more self-sufficient and reach his potential.
The King of Staten Island is an oftentimes hilarious and sometimes touching film. It has a wonderful, lived in, sense of place about it. However, it suffers from the same problems Funny People had 10 years previous. When the film’s protagonist confronts and overcomes his emotional barrier, the film becomes less interesting. Still, along with Funny People, this is probably Apatow’s most accomplished effort. I was a huge fan of Knocked Up, at 19 years old, in 2007. Apatow’s films sway between different stages in life. During The King of Staten Island I kept wondering how would a 19 year old me receive this film. All in all Apatow is not a bad comic director to grow up with.