Pete Davidson The King of Staten Island Judd Apatow

Pete Davidson gets autobiographical in The King of Staten Island

This is Judd Apatow’s most mature film about chronic immaturity.

Something rather surprising dawned on me watching The King of Staten Island: it’s the first Judd Apatow film that I’ve seen for the first time where I am older than the protagonist. From Freaks and Geeks on, I’ve always been a couple of years younger than the people the story revolves around. The King of Staten Island is the first Apatow film that I can “look back” to, as opposed to looking forward, even if Apatow himself has always been at least a decade removed from what he’s depicting. (The exception would be This Is 40, by far his most overstuffed and unwieldy effort.) 

In nearly any other situation, this would be a negligible bit of trivia. Who, really, needs movies to speak directly to them? But the fact is that for many men of my generation, Apatow’s films were really about us — to the point where their now unwoke, dated optics feel like some kind of pre-programmed growth. The lesson to be gleaned from nearly every Judd Apatow movie is “you’re this way now, and that’s fine, but you don’t HAVE to be this way forever” — but this is the first time I get to live it from a position of relative maturity.

Relative maturity is in short supply in Scott’s (Pete Davidson) life. A 24-year-old burnout still living with his mother (Marisa Tomei) on Staten Island, he’s never had a job and maintains vague ambitions of either becoming a tattoo artist or opening a “tattoo restaurant.” There’s some level of self-awareness to Scott — he knows he has crippling anxiety and self-doubt, which he leans on to keep his friend-with-benefits Kelsey (Bel Powley) at bay. He knows there’s a lot of that tied to the death of his father, a firefighter who perished in a hotel fire when he was seven, but it doesn’t stop him from spending every single day smoking weed with his burnout friends. Things get a little complicated when his mother starts dating a neighbour (Bill Burr) who also happens to be a firefighter. As their relationship grows and his sister (Maude Apatow) moves away to college, Scott finds himself needing to move on with his life — something he has never given much thought to.

Given that each and every one of Apatow’s films to date has been about some form of arrested development, it would be inaccurate to say that The King of Staten Island moves in unexplored territory. On the surface, there’s not much difference between Davidson’s Scott and the character played by Seth Rogen in Knocked Up. Both were happy to coast by and avoid responsibility for as long as possible by creating a hermetic world in which only their platonic male friends were allowed to thrive. Both characters exist in a kind of liminal world of middle-class mediocrity, convinced that there’s better out there but afraid to find out that, for all the effort you might put across, the “better” isn’t actually exponentially better. 

The difference between The King of Staten Island and Apatow’s other films is found mainly in the specifics culled from Davidson’s own life. Like Scott, his father was a firefighter who died in service (though the real-life counterpart died in 9/11); like Scott, Davidson has Crohn’s disease and (still) lives with his mother in Staten Island. To call The King of Staten Island a tailor-made vehicle is an understatement. It is one of the most perfectly realized comedic vehicles I have ever seen. I’ve never been that convinced by Pete Davidson on SNL (where his numerous celebrity dalliances and the rumoured impressiveness of his hog dominated most of the seasons he’s been on the cast) or in a few of his other acting roles, but he’s extremely loose and natural here in a way that even most people who play thinly veiled versions of themselves usually aren’t. Frankly, Pete Davidson is the thing that makes or breaks this movie that’s pretty much exclusively about Pete Davidson, which is both the first hurdle to clear and the hardest.

Given that this is a Judd Apatow film, however, there’s a poky and unwieldy quality to the proceedings that, at this point, has become a signature. The King of Staten Island is no different, though the slack plotting and slice-of-life nature of the narrative tends to make this particular effort feel more organic. It’s a little more dramatic than one might expect, which means less improvisation and riffing than in your typical Apatow joint, but it also means that the film takes bigger dramatic swings that don’t always pay off. (A criminal subplot involving Scott’s stoner buddies veers off into some truly whiplash-inducing territory, to name one example.) 

What works about The King of Staten Island isn’t the broad strokes of the coming-of-age movie (or, perhaps more accurately, the please-come-of-age-for-fuck’s-sake movie) but the granular specificities that Pete Davidson and Judd Apatow bring to the film. It’s difficult to depict a slacker burnout in this day and age because they’ve become such clichés that even an accurate depiction will border on the cartoonish. Scott is, by all accounts, not a very active participant in society; he doesn’t even want to go dancing! But he’s also visibly in pain, and Apatow never lays on the slackerisms so thick that he seems hopeless. He’s sweet and affable but quick to set off. He’s principled, in some ways, but completely adrift in others. The appeal comes not from seeing yet another young white guy get his shit together, but from seeing this specific one do it.

I’d hesitate to call The King of Staten Island gritty, though the setting and the cinematography from frequent Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator Robert Elswit certainly edge the film in that direction. What I certainly can say is that the film better inhabits the sloppiness inherent in many Apatow projects. It’s intentionally not as funny as his best-known films, but it seems a little more in tune with the evolution of Apatow as a filmmaker. It is by far his most mature film about chronic immaturity, which is perhaps something that only someone older than Pete Davidson can truly say. Or maybe just me, now. ■

The King of Staten Island is on VOD on Friday, June 12. For more info about the film, click here. Watch the trailer below:

Pete Davidson in The King of Staten Island, directed by Judd Apatow

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