- “Time is passing by very quickly”
- “Why do you think I smoke weed all the time? So I can slow it down”
As both a director and a prolific comedy producer, Judd Apatow is no stranger to modern conceptions of the perpetual adolescent; the lay-about man-child still getting high in his mom’s house well into his 30s and 40s. In the fifteen or so years since Apatow had his first string of successes, it’s become a rather tired trope. White men without goals are simply not that interesting. But Apatow, after a tangent of several years supporting young female talent like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer, has found the one young white guy unique enough to reignite the type of movie he’s so fond of making. He found Pete Davidson.
You couldn’t mistake Davidson for the Rogen/Baruchel era of Apatovian muses. He’s an almost baroque creature, with a cartoonishly large mouth and a skinny figure vandalised with ink. A damaged product of the internet, the War on Terror, irony and the type of pop culture Apatow himself helped create. He’s a grown-up movie star only four years younger than me, a contemporary cast as a dramatic lead not defined by being a child, but by no longer being one. He doesn’t rattle off 80s references, he watches Spongebob. As a result, The King of Staten Island feels like a turning point for my generation… have we finally graduated to the uncompromising spotlight?
Davidson’s character Scott is, from minute one, clearly just a slightly fictionalised version of himself. Davidson is one of the most well-known sufferers of mental illness in the entertainment industry, having posted concerning suicidal messages on Instagram last year, and while the film maintains a light touch in relation to his health, Scott raises the issue when discussing a potential relationship with Kelsey (Bel Powley), as well as his struggle with Crohn’s Disease.
Staten Island isn’t a project of self-pity, though, and in his performance and writing Davidson seems intensely alert to the risk that it could’ve become so. His father famously died on 9/11, a member of the New York Fire Department, and Scott has a similar backstory, although omitting the Sept 11 element. When Scott’s friends bring up his father’s death in one of the early scenes, it’s crudely joked about. As I said, this guy is a victim of irony as much as any of us.
We meet Scott shortly before his sister (Maude Apatow) moves away to college and he’s left to keep his mother (Marisa Tomei) company. He’s too busy giving tattoos to random kids in the woods to do much of that. His inking of a boy’s arm leads to the kid’s father angrily showing up at Scott’s mom’s house, and we’re introduced to Bill Burr as Ray, a terrifyingly moustached fireman who soon develops romantic intentions towards Scott’s mom.
Thus the first 90 minutes of The King of Staten Island becomes a movie about when your mom’s boyfriend has the same job as your dead dad, and the lengths you’d go to to make him go away. It’s classically structured, like the Mike Nichols or James L Brooks movies Apatow obviously has such reverence for, and the humour is warmer, less biting, than one might expect (a running bit about Scott’s friend being catfished by a beautiful woman is familiar broad comedy territory, but it does the job); Apatow is winning the tonal arm-wrestle with Davidson while leaving the actor space to run the table with his character choices. And it’s a much better calcification of millennial humour than films more lazily directed at that demographic (stuff like 2019’s Good Boys).
As with his best film, Funny People, there’s a strong motif of bonding with someone else’s kids being the thing that makes you want to grow up, as Scott walks Ray’s youngsters to school and has to convince their teacher his intentions are pure. Also as with Funny People, the film shifts to a new narrative phase after 90 minutes; wherein that film Adam Sandler and heads to Leslie Mann’s rural home and experience the family life he’s been missing, Scott is thrown out by his mom and has to crash with Ray and Steve Buscemi at the fire station.
The destruction of the familiar and the discovery of a new home: it’s a fate that befalls all of these goofballs until their choices become less selfish.
Buscemi regales Scott with stories of his late father, and the film starts to juxtapose Scott’s own small acts of heroism with the firefighters’. His mother’s forgiveness only comes when he brings an injured man (the nature of his injury is kept hilariously mysterious) to the ER. Even a tattoo-obsessed failure can save people when given the opportunity.
The film contends with Scott’s grief and bitterness towards the career that destroyed his family, his motivation for ruining his mom’s relationship with Ray, as a justifiable opposition to any role that puts a father at high risk of death. Yet Scott himself, and indeed Davidson, is living proof that a man who saves lives every day is likely to produce children as idealised as anyone. The casting of Buscemi, who himself volunteered with the fire department on 9/11, lost his wife to cancer last year, and has a son named Lucien, warmed me up beyond reason to be moved by the third act. As haggard and greying as he’s ever looked, Buscemi commands an authority and a worldliness we’ve never seen from him; he’s here as ambassador of a previous generation of good guys. Good guys who looked like him, that maybe we’ve forgotten about. Personally, I think Pete Davidson — with his tired, buggy eyes and beautifully misshapen face — looks a lot like him. I think he’s one of the good guys, too.