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Non-Review Review: The King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island is very much a typical late Judd Apatow project, in the style of Funny People, This is 40 or Trainwreck.

It is a serio-comic character study that essentially tries to wed the juvenile comedic sensibility that Apatow brought to the mainstream with films like Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin with the more earnest adult coming-of-age stories that were popular in the early nineties. The results are sporadically funny and affecting, often built around a single or multiple star personas. In each cause, the quality of the film largely comes down to the quality of the star anchoring it, with Trainwreck standing out due to strong turns from both Amy Schumer and Bill Hader.

“King of One of the Boroughs of New York!”

The King of Staten Island tries this approach with Pete Davidson, the stand-up comedian who is currently best known for his work on Saturday Night Live that often involved him directly addressing his own personal controversies. As with Trainwreck, the film is driven by Davidson who shares a co-writing credit and whose character is transparently modelled on Davidson himself. As such, Davidson’s star persona exerts a strange gravity on The King of Staten Island, all the more notable for the fact that this is really Davidson’s first proper starring role of itself.

The King of Staten Island is occasionally moving and engaging, but it never manages to escape from Davidson’s shadow. Simultaneously, there’s something slightly frustrating in the way that for all The King of Staten Island transparently draws from Davidson’s own experiences and history, its narrative structure is painfully generic. Its central character arc is so routine as to undermine any real sense of personality or intimacy. This is the central paradox of the film. The King of Staten Island is both unable to escape Davidson’s gravity and unable to bring itself to look directly at him.

Fighting firemen.

To be fair, there is a clear evolutionary line between the films that established Judd Apatow as an influential voice in American comedy and the films that he has made a point of producing in recent years. Apatow was the writer and director who really codified the sense of arrested development that defines so much of modern mainstream American comedy, tales of adults who seem trapped within a perpetual adolescence.

This template perhaps resonates with the millennial generation as more than just a punchline. After all, the young adults who came of age at the turn of the century are more likely to live at home with their parents for longer, less likely to enjoy the career and financial stability that their parents took for granted, and less likely to settle down into traditional family units. This is a generation that has – through no fault of its own – been unable to meet many of the landmarks of “growing up” as set by their elders.

Lighting up the screen.

The overgrown man-children of contemporary American comedy may resonate with those anxieties on multiple levels. As such, it makes a certain amount of sense that Apatow’s films would shift genre slightly, taking the punchlines that defined films like Knocked Up as playing them just a little more earnestly and sincerely. Perhaps Apatow has simply inverted the classic assertion that history repeats “the first as tragedy, then as farce.”

Scott is a fairly standard Apatowian protagonist. He is a young man with no real prospects, growing up in a dead end environment. He spends his days smoking marijuana and playing video games, fantasising about his plans to open a unique tattoo restaurant, but without taking any real steps towards accomplishing that dream beyond idly tattooing his best friends for practice. “Let’s go somewhere,” pleads a guest of the group in the opening scene. “Let’s go dancing.” Scott sighs, “We don’t go out.” He lounges in his chair, “I love it here. It’s safe.”

Family man.

There are obvious comedic elements seeded through The King of Staten Island, with Scott being fairly quick-witted and the film lingering on the weird conversational tangents that the characters explore. However, even these jokes are premeated with a sense of melancholy. The King of Staten Island is very relaxed in its pacing, perhaps hoping to capture the listlessness and existential ennui of these young men trapped in what they describe as the forgotten borough.

Nobody in Scott’s circle is going anywhere. “Do you guys even get high anymore?” one asks, taking a hit. Scott replies, “I don’t think I get high anymore. I’m just… like, me.” His antidepressants mean that even sex is unfulfilling. The only member of the group who seems to have serious plans to get away from this suffocating boredom is Kelsey, the old school friend who is involved in a casual no-strings-attached affair with Scott. “This is what’s wrong with Staten Island,” she complains. “We’re stuck with the people from here.”

Not-so-Great Scott…

This is all very indulgent, but there’s at least some sense in which there’s a genuine human story to be told here. After all, Davidson draws from his own personal experiences. Like Scott, he grew up on Staten Island. Like Scott, he grapples with depression. Like Scott, his father was a firefighter who died in the line of duty. It’s clear that there’s a lot of Davidson in Scott, who has managed to shape a large part of his career by grappling openly with his problems. He recorded recent Saturday Night Live episodes from his parents’ basement in Staten Island.

However, there are also two key ways in which The King of Staten Island overplays its hand. Most basically, it suffers from insisting too strongly on its own profundity. Scott’s interest in tattoos is more than just a simple character motivation. It’s rendered as a philosophical statement on the nature of human existence. “The pain is the whole point of getting tattoos,” Scott observes. Later, he explains, “Whenever I’m going through something, I get one.” This has the effect of turning Scott’s passion into ritualised flagellation that he effectively inflicts upon others.

Hugging out.

The central idea is relatively solid, and makes sense extrapolated from Davidson’s public persona. Davidson is a comedian who has found an audience and attracted attention by externalising his own issues as a way of both working through them and connecting with others. However, the pain that a tattoo artist inflicts upon their subject doesn’t exactly map to that. Indeed, it’s interesting that The King of Staten Island repeatedly hints that Scott might like to externalise his feelings through painting, but it’s a thread that is only suggested rather than developed.

The other problem is that the film feels disappointingly formulaic despite the implication that it is drawn from life. Scott’s life might overlap with Davidson’s in some interesting ways, but his actual journey is incredibly predictable. Scott begins as a selfish asshole, but is gradually mellowed through contact with both two adorable children and some good honest firemen. The children allow Scott to demonstrate a softer side of himself, while the firefighters serve to instill in Scott a sense of purpose that had otherwise been missing from his life.

Handling this ferry well indeed.

This is very straightforward, a standard coming of age arc. A disaffected young man is taken under the wing of a strong paternalistic figure who manages to guide him towards his potential. It’s a fairly standard beat in movies like this, but is often handled with a bit more elegance and skill. The King of Staten Island treats the firefighters who eventually take Scott in as living saints. They represent an idealised version of masculinity and adulthood from which this lost millennial soul might eventually glean some key lessons. When they believe in him, he can believe in himself.

In some ways, this feels like a disappointingly cliché approach from Apatow, whose films have often emphasised the extent to which this generation have largely been left to their own devices to resolve their problems – counting on nothing but (reluctantly) each other. After so many of these movies, it feels almost facile to suggest that a character like Scott just needs a fire station full of real men and a surrogate father figure to show him how to be a man.

A familiar narrative engine.

The problem is compounded by the movie’s indulgence. Apatow’s recent films all push over the two-hour mark, asking a lot from a comedy drama. The King of Staten Island suffers in particular because its character arc is so familiar and formulaic. It’s very clear what Scott needs to do before the end of the movie, and the path that he follows to that destination isn’t especially novel or interesting. The King of Staten Island waits fifty minutes before introducing Steve Buscemi’s older firefighter, who is key to the final arc. It waits ninety minutes before reaching the fire station.

The King of Staten Island is a fairly sturdy if overly predictable film that suffers greatly from an unearned sense of profundity and indulgence. There are moments of wit and charm within the film, and occasional glimmers of a truly personal story being told, but it feels too conventional and too bloated to convincingly deliver on that potential.

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