They say you can tell a Judd Apatow comedy by its running time, and by they I mean me, and by comedy I mean any one of his six feature films. While The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) clocks in at only 116 minutes, his next five films all reach past the two-hour mark. To be clear, that’s not a negative criticism on its face as running time alone doesn’t dictate a film’s quality, but by this point in Apatow’s filmography the pattern of excess is pretty clear. His latest, The King of Staten Island, continues that trend delivering more screen time than the film’s laughs, character, and heart can fill, but when Apatow and newly minted leading man Pete Davidson click the results are entertaining enough.
Scott Carlin (Davidson) is a twenty-something slacker still living at home with his widowed mother (the always appreciated Marisa Tomei) and a younger sister (a terrific Maude Apatow) who’s about to head off to college. He spends his days playing video games, getting high with friends, and complaining about life, and through it all he holds the totally doable dream of opening a restaurant/tattoo parlor where he’d be the artist in residence. The problem, one of many, is that he’s not all that focused with his art, and when he inks a nine-year-old’s arm as practice the boy’s father (Bill Burr) swings by to complain but instead ends up dating Scott’s mom. That’s bad enough, but Ray is a firefighter, just like Scott’s deceased dad, and it opens up a can of anxiety-filled worms in Scott’s already stunted life.
Apatow’s films almost exclusively pit their playful protagonists against the perils of adulthood, and his latest is no different. Davidson’s Scott is no good to anyone — not the girlfriend (Bel Powley) he ignores, not the friends he fails during a misguided burglary attempt, and certainly not the mother whose attention and affection are unnecessarily assured through guilt trips — and he says as much more than once here. The film’s familiar theme of growing up and maturing comes knocking, though, as Scott is forced to deal with his feelings about his father’s death and how it’s supposedly shaped his current life choices.
It’s a reliable enough road to go down, but Apatow’s script (co-written by Davidson and Dave Sirus) devotes nearly a full hour to establishing characters and narrative — something it accomplishes in less than half that meaning we’re left with noticeable meandering and padding. Things eventually find their way back into motion, but the drag burdens more than just the running time as both humor and heart take a real hit from too much time spent listening to Scott’s excuses. The film’s back half runs far smoother as Scott’s journey of growth results in some warm character moments and big laughs.
All of Apatow’s movies feature “funny people” in the lead role with actors/comedians Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler, Paul Rudd, and Amy Schumer headlining his previous five films, and Davidson fits that mold as a featured player on Saturday Night Live since 2014. Where he differs, though, is in the personal connection to the character — Davidson’s real father was also a firefighter who died on the job, but in the real world it happened on 9/11. Davidson’s played to this history in his own comedy pitting his disaffected response to the tragedy all these years later against punchlines that leave audiences laughing and cringing, and he does good work channeling it into a character who’s as likely to joke about it as he is to tease real anger and loss. While it’s not quite a nuanced performance it is at least one that communicates the complicated emotional terrain of grief for young people.
There’s no real surprise in Scott’s journey — slackers in Apatow films always find direction without losing their playful sense of humor — and it arguably goes a bit too easy on him as usual, but Davidson and the rest of the cast keep things lively. As mentioned, Apatow the younger has come a long way since stealing scenes as a child in a trio of her father’s earlier films, and she shows legit acting chops and comedic skill here. Veterans like Tomei, Powley, and Burr pull their weight, as do others like Kevin Corrigan and Steve Buscemi.
The King of Staten Island probably won’t win Apatow any new fans, but those who’ve stayed with him since his feature debut fifteen years ago will find more of what they like here. It’s Davidson who’ll probably get the bigger bump as the lead who’s on screen for most of the film, and while he’s essentially playing a version of himself there’s enough of a performance here to suggest he might have more to offer than self deprecating digs at himself.