The opening scene of The King of Staten Island is not only the highlight of Judd Apatow’s latest act of indulgence, but also hints at something that the rest of the film never lives up to. It tracks Pete Davidson’s Scott as he drives on the highway, face scrunching up in frustration before he breathes in and closes his eyes. It’s cathartic and powerful in a way the film is not and, subsequently, never really tries to be. The film forgoes any real level of pathos for an even keeled story that flounders in the “just fine” territory. It’s tried and true Apatow – overlong, well meaning and allowing an up and coming talent to try and take the reigns of a film – though in this case, the star ends up dwarfed by heartfelt performances by the supporting players.
Scott is a 20 something sunken into the pits of arrested development, watching as his younger sister goes to college and pseudo girlfriend begins to pursue her dreams outside of the Staten Island perimeter. His lifestyle is flipped on its head though when his mother, the wonderful Marissa Tomei, falls for a firefighter played with subtle humor and loud sincerity by Bill Burr. As the three try to cope with their new relationship dynamics and Scott deals with lingering feelings over the death of his father – also a fireman – they also must find what it is they want in life and what they’re willing to sacrifice to get it.
But don’t let that synopsis mislead you. It is very much a strictly by the numbers, meat and potatoes style Apatow venture – though his lead is cast somewhat younger than what he might usually go for. Much of the film, as is the case with any comedy driven by the persona of the star, is in the hands of Davidson, a talent who is divisive to say the least. His story is undoubtedly profound – even if it’s a diluted version of it here – but unfortunately he never musters up the charisma the role calls for. There’s a haunted look to him – one that a toothy smile does much to try and hide – and it’s something that, in those opening seconds, proves to be beneficial in front of a camera because it’s at his most vulnerable and emotionally honest. There is a great performance lingering all of the easy height gags and shallow jokes, but it wasn’t intriguing enough for the writing team to dig deeper with.
Luckily, we have Tomei and Burr to fill in the spaces with a genuinely lovely romantic comedy subplot. They court one another with leveled naturalism and a sweetness that overtakes the otherwise sharp screenplay by Davidson, Apatow and Dave Sirus. It’s so touching, so sweet of a story that it might’ve been better off had it taken the lead. This is especially true when we think of just how many films have already been made that focus on a son’s discontent with his mother’s new boyfriend. Tomei in particular is marvelous in a role that is so understated and full of warmth and laughter that it easily could have replaced Scott’s story and maybe would have made for a better picture overall. The romance is the core of the film, and the only reason this aimless film stays anchored is due to the work and magnetism of Tomei and Burr.
While Davidson isn’t the most captivating leading man, much of the narrative disarray falls in the hands of Apatow, who has made it a habit of his to stretch a storyline too thin. This time around there’s a subplot where Scott gets a job as a busboy that needs to be entirely clipped out, a third act takes too long to arrive, and a climactic moment between Scott and his friends that nearly threatens to shake up the tone of a movie already struggling to stay grounded. There are more than a few moments of promise, including the aforementioned opening and the romance between Burr and Tomei, and heartwarming scenes such as an impromptu singalong in a dive bar that Scott takes part in with a bunch of local firemen who had just regaled him of his late father. It’s those moments of promise that make the general apathy The King of Staten Island inspired all the more frustrating.
Like it’s protagonist, there’s charm to The King of Staten Island and it has its moments of biting honesty, but the film stalls as it takes too long to get out of its rudderless station and grab the reigns of its story.