A film review by Craig J. Koban June 25, 2020


2020, R, 136 mins.

Pete Davidson as Scott  /  Bel Powley as Kelsey  /  Bill Burr as Ray  /  Marisa Tomei as Margie  /  Maude Apatow as Claire  /  Pamela Adlon as Gina  /  Steve Buscemi as Papa

Directed by Judd Apatow  /  Written by Apatow, Pete Davidson, and Dave Sirus

Judd Apatow's THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND is a new dramedy of strange contradictions.   

It's the kind of film that has an authentic and grounded texture and some committed performances that work together to intimately invite you into its unique microcosm.  At the same time, I felt that Apatow's efforts here were frustratingly pushing me away at a distracting distance, largely due to some creatively questionable choices that hold the film back from achieving the same sort of comedic greatness that typified his early work in THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and KNOCKED UP.  This film is indeed a deeply personal endeavor for star Pete Davidson (I'll elaborate on that in a bit) that has some real weight to it, not to mention that Apatow - as he has demonstrated throughout his career - has a strong affinity with bringing out the best of his actors.  But THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND is so egregiously self-indulgent in terms of running time and lack of narrative focus.  It also has an unwillingness to tackle its serious themes with any depth.  All of this conspires together to make the film a real slog to sit through. 

Obviously, THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND is designed to be a starring vehicle for its SNL star in Davidson, who owes his director in Apatow a lot for establishing his big breaks in the industry (he had a bit part in TRAINWRECK, which led to his audition and hiring on SNL, which now segued into his lead role here).  Beyond his nurturing relationship with his writer/director, Davidson's screenplay here (which he co-wrote with Apatow and David Sirus) is a semi-autobiographical take on his own upbringing and life.  Tragically, Davidson lost his firefighter father when he was just a boy (he was one of the first responders on 9/11), which led to the future TV/movie star having a rebellious adolescence and young adulthood that was tainted with drug and alcohol usage as well as bouts with deep depression and suicidal feelings of low self worth.  I think there is something unendingly commendable about a comedian looking to confront and potentially exorcise his past personal demons by using it as a launching pad for a screen comedy.

Having said of all that, one of the main issues with THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND is largely with the character Davidson plays here (obviously, a fictitious stand-in for himself): He's another on an increasingly long list of Apatow-ian man-child characters hopelessly stuck in a state of arrested development.  That, and he's simply not a very appealing character at all and treats many around him like garbage for much of the film's already elephantine and unearned 137 minute runtime.  THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND is not a bad film because it's about a dislikeable character (that along doesn't make for bad cinema), but I never cared enough about this guy to root him on to an unavoidable arc of self-actualization and healing.   



Davidson plays 24-year-old high school dropout Scott, who spends most of his days smoking weed, drinking, partying with friends, and all while having virtually no concern about his future or interpersonal relationships back home.  In short: he's a loser.  He still lives at home with his surprisingly caring, but unhealthily enabling mother in Margie (a superb Marisa Tomei) and his 18-year-old baby sister in Claire (Maude Apatow), who's the lone child success story in this family, seeing as she's about to head out to college.  Even though Scott is as aimless and uninspired as slackers go, he does have artistic talent and wishes to become a tattoo artist, but lacks fundamental drive to simply get there.  There are some motives behind his moodiness: His father was a firefighter that died years ago, and ever since he's had tremendous difficulty processing that, healing for the better, and trying to make something of his life.  That, and he suffers from Crohn's disease, something that he seems to proudly boast about as yet another reason for his life remaining at rock bottom. 

Scott's mother has reached a point, though, where she feels that it's time to hit the next step in her life and start dating again (reasonable for anyone that has been a young widow for nearly twenty years).  She hooks up with a local chap named Ray Bishop (a delightfully cagey Bill Burr), who rather ironically - or conveniently, depending on how you slice it - is a local firefighter, which angers Scott to no end.  Scott doesn't seem happy with his mom moving on and takes an instant and hostile dislike of Ray, but he specifically despises the notion of him also being a firefighter, which hits him to close to home.  Slowly and methodically, Scott tries to sabotage Ray and his mother's relationship, but as plots like this always have a habit of showing, his early disdain for his mother's new suitor later gives way to acceptance and understanding, allowing for him to seek his own path of recovery. 

Again, I like what Davidson and Apatow are attempting here in their efforts to mix laughs and pathos in equal measures in exploring Scott's arduous journey to become a self-actualized individual that grows to pick himself up and grow as a person for the better.  Apatow certainly has a template that he's been using - with inconsistent levels of success throughout his directorial career - to employ comedians to tap into stories that generate humor and dramatic relevance in equal measure (Adam Sandler in FUNNY PEOPLE and Amy Schumer in TRAINWRECK come immediately and recently to mind).  I think that THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND begins with great promise: It's opening sequence shows the mentally troubled Scott racing down a freeway with his eyes closed in a desperate act that could have bordered on suicidal.  The film is noteworthy for trying to deal with the daily struggles of people that suffer from chronic depression, but that sort of gets lost very early on in the film when it seems that Apatow can't really settle on a unifying tone.  Does he want his film to be scatologically funny or heartbreaking?  Silly or serious?  Does he want his film to be a sobering expose on depression or an idiosyncratic comedy of crude manners?  More often than not, THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND wages war within itself. 

It's too bad, because Davidson is pretty decent here, even though, when one really thinks about it, there's really not much to Scott as a character outside of his tortured childhood.  He's a sad persona, but not a very interesting one.  At times, he's beyond insufferable.  I did sympathize with him because the notion of losing a father to a horrible tragedy so early in life is so emotionally crushing, but I never really grew to like Scott, nor did I find the particulars of his arc to be anything but preordained and predictable.  When it boils right down to it, THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND takes nearly two and a half hours to deal with Scott's animosity towards Ray's courting of his mother and the later thawing of hostilities where everyone grows to care and support each other.  None of this is particularly revealing or compelling, and Apatow's film never once requires such a watch checking running time.  I've been more than a bit forgiving of some of the director's past bloated and over stuffed films, but I way less inclined to turn a blind eye this time.   

It's all such a shame, because Apatow concocts such a tight little universe here that feels so tactile and lived in, and you gain an immediate sense of the neighborhood dynamics and how everyone relates to the other.  The world contained within the film feels real, even when the scripting is contrived, meandering, and formless.  And the supporting cast assembled here is supremely on point, especially Tomei and Burr, who collectively are so naturally wonderful together on-screen that you almost wish that an entire comedy was built around their believably flawed, but caring characters instead of the obnoxious jerk that is Scott.  I appreciated how Apatow fleshes out the side roles here, and when the plot transitions into the tightly knit world of Ray's firefighter band of brothers THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND has such an immediate veracity.  Steve Buscemi shows up late (far too late) in the film as a local firefighter comrade to Ray that shows that an awful lot of him in any film goes an awfully long way. 

The sum of the good parts of THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND don't, unfortunately, make for a satisfying whole.  It features such a bounty of stellar actors, a noble minded narrative steeped in real life trauma for its lead star, and there's an undeniable and charming sweetness and tenderness here mixed in within the R-rated raunch (Apatow is one of the best for marrying these two divergent extremes).  But, dear Lord, this film is inexcusably too long and unwieldy for its own good as far a coming of age dramedies go (it feels like first cut material that Apatow decided to release on VOD after a theatrical release was nixed because of Covid-19) and its aimlessness and lack of creative discipline severely taints it.  I want films like this to cascade over me in an organic manner.  I want to stay in their worlds and never leave.  Contrastingly, I felt the burdensome weight of THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND begin to weigh heavily on me during my endurance test of an in-home screening, so much so that I was relieved when it was finally over.   

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