In films like 2009’s Funny People and 2012’s This Is 40, director Judd Apatow drew heavily from his own personal life, spearheading a movement in movie comedy toward more earnest emotional expression (along with a heavy reliance on improvisation). The more successful Apatow has become, the more he’s shifted away from writing and directing movies toward working as a producer and comedy mogul, and as a filmmaker, he’s been more interested in amplifying the personal voices of other performers than in expressing his own. That’s what he did for Amy Schumer in 2015’s Trainwreck, and that’s what he does for Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson in The King of Staten Island.
Written by Apatow, Davidson and former SNL writer Dave Sirus, The King of Staten Island is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age movie, remixing many of the real elements of Davidson’s life into the story of 24-year-old Staten Island slacker Scott Carlin, who still lives at home with his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) and spends his time smoking pot with his burnout friends and half-heartedly pursuing his dream of becoming a tattoo artist. Like Davidson himself, Scott lost his firefighter dad when he was just seven years old (Davidson’s real-life father died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while Scott’s dad died saving people from a hotel fire).
When Margie starts up a romantic relationship with another firefighter, divorced dad Ray (Bill Burr), and pushes Scott to get his life together, Scott lashes out at the well-meaning people in his life, stubbornly refusing to face up to his adult responsibilities. Scott’s journey from entitled (yet troubled) man-child to slightly more mature (yet still troubled) adult is entirely predictable, and the shapeless movie takes 136 minutes to give its main character the smallest bit of emotional growth. Apatow’s preference for improvisation and loosely structured narratives has resulted in bloated running times for several of his movies, and The King of Staten Island meanders aimlessly, barely getting to the central conflict between Scott and Ray until halfway through the movie.
Along the way, Apatow throws in numerous haphazard subplots, which loosely come together around the theme of Scott’s need to grow up, but mostly just amount to wasted time. Several half-formed storylines could easily be the main hook for a coming-of-age story, but Apatow tosses them aside before moving onto the next sketchy plot element. Scott bonds with Ray’s young kids when he’s tasked with walking them to school. Later, Scott bonds with Ray and his firefighter co-workers when Margie kicks him out of the house and he has nowhere else to stay.
The most entertaining subplot focuses on Scott’s fear of commitment in his relationship with Kelsey (Bel Powley), a friend he’s known for years and is hooking up with in secret. She’s very vocal about her desire to take the relationship to the next level, and Scott is typically reluctant to make any kind of real choice. Powley is very funny as the outspoken, ambitious Kelsey, whose main goal in life is to make Staten Island as cool and trendy as Brooklyn, but Kelsey disappears for long stretches of the movie while Apatow and Davidson spend time on other, less rewarding relationships.
As with Trainwreck, much of the appeal of The King of Staten Island comes down to how charming audiences find its star, and while Davidson is earnest and vulnerable, he’s just not that funny here, and it’s easy to see why so many people in Scott’s life find him annoying. Davidson was better in a supporting role as a similar character in recent coming-of-age comedy Big Time Adolescence, which understood that his presence might be more enjoyable in small doses. There are no big comedic set pieces (the craziest moment comes when Scott serves as lookout while his friends rob a local pharmacy, which isn’t played for laughs), and the efforts at grounded, everyday humor inspire mild laughs at best.
Apatow clearly has sympathy and affection for Davidson, and The King of Staten Island is good-natured and well-intentioned, even if it’s dramatically and comedically inert. It’s nice that Apatow wants to use his talents and influence to help others tell their stories, but just stringing together a bunch of mildly amusing anecdotes doesn’t make for an entertaining or effective movie.