The King of Staten Island: A movie review

I am a big Judd Apatow fan. I have been since The Ben Stiller Show hit the air in 1992, a series he co-created with Stiller and Jeff Kahn which I still hold as one of the best sketch comedy shows in television history. In the decades since, he has maintained an unbelievable track record for insightful and hilarious comedy, with The Cable Guy, Knocked Up, Freaks and Geeks, Funny People, Trainwreck, Love, Superbad and many others appearing on his lengthy résumé. When his new movie, The King of Staten Island, became available On Demand this weekend, I was excited. The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented all of us from visiting cinemas, and we have been deprived of many of the most anticipated new movies of 2020. So here is a new movie directed and co-written by Apatow being made available, even if it’s not in the venue I would prefer. I’ll take it.

I found The King of Staten Island to be a disappointment.

The movie is based upon star and co-writer Pete Davidson’s life. As many people who watch Davidson on Saturday Night Live know, his father was a firefighter who perished on 9/11, and this movie is inspired by Davidson’s loss. That is an area rife with material to explore. The problem is the main character. Davidson plays Scott, a 24-year-old arrested adolescent who lives with his mother, refuses to get a job and survives on marijuana. I don’t have a problem with any of those character traits. I have a problem his failure to take responsibility for any mistakes he makes and the ease with which he uses people to get what he needs at the moment. I strongly feel like I was being asked to empathize with Scott, but I honestly didn’t know why I should. I would have been able to had I seen him investing any effort at all into confronting his demons, but he doesn’t.

The film opens with Scott hanging out with a group of friends including a couple of girls, one with whom he engages in casual sex. She wants something more serious, but he wants it to stay casual because he feels he has too much baggage she doesn’t deserve. The film meanders from there, taking us to a scene where Scott and his friends are hanging out at the beach. (Even though the film later says they were at the woods. I don’t know how that wasn’t corrected. It was clearly at the beach.) Scott is talking about his dream of opening a combination tattoo parlour/restaurant, when a nine-year-old boy walks up to them. For some reason these guys are only too happy to talk with the kid, and I think the reason is because the plot demands it. This interaction felt forced to say the least, which is odd for an Apatow film – normally some of the most organic and natural-feeling movies in existence. Here, we have a small child asking for a tattoo, and a 24-year-old man agreeing to do it. It’s a scene that relies on stupidity to happen, and it’s the scene that kicks this film into what resembles motion.

Scott’s mother (Marisa Tomei) hears banging on her door, and on her front step is the young boy and his father, Ray, played by Bill Burr. Ray is furious, demanding that his son’s tattoo removal be compensated. Scott at first tries to hide from Ray, but then argues with him. His mother is more understanding, and agrees to do what she can with a laser at the hospital where she works. Ray leaves in a huff, but (surprise surprise) finds himself thinking about how attractive a woman played by Marisa Tomei is, and he returns to the house the next day to flirt. It’s not long before they develop into a serious couple, and, of course, Scott doesn’t like it, partly because it’s the guy who yelled at him, and partly because Ray is a firefighter like his father was.

Ray tries to smooth things over with Scott, which leads to one of the few scenes in the movie I actually found to be effective. They go to a baseball game and sit amongst some of Ray’s fellow firefighters, one of whom is played by Steve Buscemi. It’s here when Scott launches into a monologue about how firefighters shouldn’t have children, and how it’s cruel when they do. It’s one of the few times I felt like I got a glimpse deep inside Scott’s character and why he’s the way he is. It was a fleeting moment.

Things boil over when Scott is asked by his mother and Ray to look for a place of his own. Any goodwill that had developed between Scott and Ray is now scuttled, and they actually come to literal blows. When this happens, Scott’s mother orders them both out of her house, officially ending her relationship with Ray and leaving Scott with nowhere to sleep. This is when Scott reached new levels of loathsomeness for me.

He goes back to his casual sex partner and sleeps with her, then afterward he asks if he can crash with her for a little while. She asks him if that’s why he returned, and he unconvincingly denies it. She doesn’t buy it and asks him to leave, ending whatever sexual arrangement they have. Then he goes and visits one of his friends in prison, and mutters, “Since you’re not using your place, do you mind if I crash there?” That doesn’t go over well, so Scott wanders out of the prison.

His wandering takes him, for some reason, to a firehall. I thought at the time that this seemed forced, like something that would only take place in a third-rate screenplay if the writer was desperately trying to hammer home a link between the main character and his father. However, someone finds Scott amongst the fire engines, and he asks if Ray is there. He is brought to the back to see him.

There is no way, if Scott were a real person, that he would make any attempt to see Ray at this moment in time. I couldn’t by into it. The only reason he would was because the plot demands it. It’s the same reason why Scott and his friends spoke to the 9-year-old at the beginning of the movie. It’s forced, and it’s moments like these that would send most screenwriters to another draft.

Eventually we get another scene involving Buscemi’s character recalling things about Scott’s father, but it wasn’t enough to save this film for me. I think Davidson intended this film to be about Scott coming to terms with the loss of his father, and learning to move on with his life, and that’s a fantastic idea for a movie. Grief is a powerful subject for drama, allowing artists to explore depression and mental health. However, drama involves the main character embarking on a journey of self-discovery, and in the case of The King of Staten Island, I found Scott to be too obstinate for too long to allow that journey to begin. When he finally starts along the path, it felt like a choice that character wouldn’t make, and that other characters (mostly Buscemi’s) were doing the work for him.

I’m very puzzled why Apatow chose to film this. I just don’t feel like it’s up to his normal standards. Perhaps Davidson refused to revise the screenplay any further, which I clearly think it needed. Perhaps this project was already cathartic enough for him, and I get that. I suspect he exorcised some powerful demons through the course of The King of Staten Island’s development, and I hope some good things came out of it for him. I just think that if he wanted anyone else to get much out of it, then more work needed to be done.

On the off chance that Davidson reads this, may I suggest a project where you actually explore who your father was? The King of Staten Island attempts to focus on Scott’s feelings of loss over his father, but we’re only told quick little stories about who he was, and then we watch Scott as he internalizes it. I think it would be worth Davidson’s while to write something from the point of view of a firefighter with a son at home. Let the father be the centre of the story.

Out of a score of ten, I give The King of Staten Island a six.