Judd Apatow has built and padded his filmography on a basic principle: construct vehicles for comic actors in the early days of their ascending stardom – Steve Carrell in The 40-Year Old Virgin, Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (the outlier is the Adam Sandler-led Funny People, and it is perhaps not coincidentally Apatow’s best film). Current It boy Pete Davidson is Apatow’s latest muse, the comedian obliging his second slacker-stoner typecasting of the year (after Big Time Adolescence), though the director famously uses his actors’ authentic selves as character inspiration. While Apatow has always been a formless visual artist, the problem, this far along into his career, is his inability to evolve as a storyteller, relying on the same sitcom-level template with diminishing results. As a writer, he primarily relies on a fusion of improv-heavy banter comedy (usually of the bro variety) and domestic melodrama; it’s not surprising, then, that his most successful creative efforts come in the form of television works like Freaks and Geeks and The Larry Sanders Show, the serialized medium allowing for a more nuanced application of these elements and an elongation of otherwise arch narrative conceits. His characters all suffer some form of arrested development – sexual, developmental, professional – and Apatow seems stuck in the same rut, managing only to retread familiar territory with each successive film. That all of this plays out in the condensed format of film, relative to the functionality of television’s long-form, only emphasizes Apatow’s creative stagnation.
His characters all suffer some form of arrested development – sexual, developmental, professional – and Apatow seems stuck in the same rut, managing only to retread familiar territory with each successive film.
Still, The King of Staten Island starts promisingly: Davidson’s Scott is a 24-year-old layabout, ineffectually aspiring to own his dream business, Ruby Tat-Tuesdays, a combination tattoo parlor-restaurant of his own design. Apatow’s familiar ingredients are here: the director surrounds Scott with an eccentric crew of drug-dealing, insult-heavy Staten Island townies, establishes mental health concerns (the diagnostic suggestion is BPD, which Davidson suffers from), introduces a love interest, Kelsey (Bel Powley, doing her best Real Housewives-prequel impression), who Scott keeps at arm’s length, and builds his film around an emotionally stunted individual — specifically, here, it revolves around the trauma of losing a father at a young age. He mooches off of his mother’s generosity, and the film’s essential conflict arises when she starts dating for the first time since her husband’s death. Her love interest, Ray (Bill Burr), also happens to be a fireman who worked with Scott’s dad, and he poses an immediate threat to Scott’s loafing lifestyle. The film proceeds according to this equation for 90 minutes of its substantial runtime, inoffensively trifling as it succeeds on the strength of Davidson’s particular brand of abrasive doofus humor, generating laughs both from his unapologetic prickliness (“I’m not going to remember a word you guys just said,” he responds to a couple asking him to memorize their order) and some instances of Chad-adjacent obliviousness. But rather than capitalize on the potential weightiness of Scott’s mental health issues and trauma-aided driftlessness (which Davidson has addressed with more depth in one-off interview quotes than the film manages here), Apatow turns this into a maudlin treatise on growing up at all ages and the healing power of herodom. It’s one of the more jarring shifts in an Apatow catalog already largely devoid of elegance, trading Davidson’s droll repartee with Ray’s small children and his adult tantrums for some saccharine firehouse speeches and lazy displays of camaraderie. It’s a particularly stifling development as it’s beginning to seem that Davidson would likely be a better dramatic actor than comic one given the opportunity, and might have that chance here considering the material, but Apatow’s penchant for unsophisticated, easily digestible Lifetime dramatics undermines the laggard appeal of King’s early promise. But while the film amounts to little, momentary grace comes in the form of an Action Bronson cameo near the film’s end, his anarchic spirit and weirdo comedic vibes momentarily masking the film’s pedestrian devolution. The man is a born star, and the highest praise you can give him is that he has the kind of organic, barbed charisma that Apatow would likely love to someday appropriate in service of middle class clichés.