So you should know going into The King of Staten Island that, yes, director Judd Apatow hasn’t changed his aesthetic in terms of narrative length or character ingredients. A too-long comedic drama (emphasis on the drama here) focusing on a typical man-child who’s failed to launch himself, Staten Island hopes to be more endearing than it ultimately is. But, perhaps almost refreshingly, the glossier sheen that was wiped over previous efforts like Knocked Up and Trainwreck, has been replaced here with a grit that plays hand-in-hand with lead Pete Davidson’s semi-autobiographical screenplay.
Even though Apatow hasn’t adhered to the constant criticism he’s received regarding trimming certain aspects of his overly-long stories, there’s no denying that he still knows how to control his components in terms of his actors and their performances. Unlike the loose-canon/improv temperament that the likes of Steve Carell and Seth Rogen are known for, Davidson’s performance feels remarkably restrained. Perhaps a testament to Davidson’s very personal connection to the story (Davidson’s character, like Davidson himself, has Crohn’s disease and lost his firefighter father at age 7), under the guidance of Apatow the dark core of the narrative feels wonderfully offset by the natural performances he is able to conduct.
As personal a story it may be to Davidson, there’s nothing particularly innovative about what transpires on screen. His character has no direction, he indulges heavily in recreational drugs, he keeps his emotions at bay to the people that actually give a shit about him…he’s often quite frustrating in his actions, and, as is tradition with movies of this ilk, it’s supposedly meant to be a charming trait. Davidson has understandably suffered from losing his father at a young age, but his character uses it as some kind of crutch to justify his behaviour, which proves quite taxing in a story that has little meat on its narrative bone as is.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Due to the personal nature the story and character has to Davidson, it stands to reason that his performance would be grounded in an organic manner. Not once does he ever feel like he’s acting, and as frustrating as his character traits may be, there’s no way that his turn here can be discredited in any way. Marisa Tomei as Davidson’s mother also deserves attention, the actress radiating a warmth that makes her suffering as a single parent and her ultimate happiness in finding a new beau all the more effective. In fact, Apatow’s handling of all his female characters is commendable, with Maude Apatow (his real-life daughter) and Bel Powley as, respectively, Davidson’s younger sister and his friend-with-benefits cutting through the bro-comradery that usually dominates these films.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
"...The King of Staten Island is a surprisingly grounded film..."
The King of Staten Island (2020) | VOD
Staten Island as a location isn’t particularly glamourised, and there’s nothing of note regarding how characters appear, but in keeping everything particularly natural the film earns points for maintaining a sense of reality.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The film has no score of importance, nor does it rely heavily on a Top 40-approved soundtrack, again playing into its more naturally-inclined personality. Staten Island’s opening scene featuring Davidson driving a car blasting music before he has a near-accident is indicative of how innately music will be incorporated into the film. As it cuts between the interior and exterior of the car, the music is similarly spliced so that the outside shots are edited to the natural sounds of the vehicle, foregoing the instinct to play music over the entire scene. It’s a subtle ingredient that drives how much the film will aim for a more realistic approach in telling its story.
Despite Davidson’s background as a comedian - though his SNL work rarely sees him play big as a character - The King of Staten Island is a surprisingly grounded film that operates more as a drama with the sporadic comedic moment or dialogue inserted to offset its, at times, depressing grit. Those expecting a comedy on par with Apatow’s previous, celebrated work - The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Step Brothers, Bridesmaids, etc - will be disappointed, with the film surviving more so as a showcase for Davidson’s capabilities as a performer.