The King of Staten Island is one of the latest movies to be downgraded to a direct-to-streaming release, but doesn’t suffer too much for it. Sure, one might have wrung more enjoyment out of sharing its laughs with fellow theatergoers, but ultimately the latest Judd Apatow movie plays just fine on the small screen. It already seems destined to enjoy a second life on cable alongside Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Pete Davidson plays the sardonic, perpetually stoned Scott, a twentysomething amateur tattoo artist who dreams of becoming a professional but does little to realize his goal. He’s still grappling with depression seventeen years after the tragic death of his firefighter father – a detail lifted from Davidson’s own life. Scott spends his days getting high with his buddies and his childhood friend-turned-hookup Kelsey (Bel Powley). After his younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow, naturally) leaves for college, Scott’s mother (Marisa Tomei) strikes up a romance with Ray (Bill Burr), a middle-aged firefighter. Scott, seeing the relationship as a betrayal of his father’s memory, sets about trying to break them up; but inevitably, he and Ray begin to bond on their own terms.
As you can probably guess, the plot of The King of Staten Island is a loose affair, comprised of episodic vignettes instead one chief narrative. The approach proves to be a double-edged sword: the writing has a nicely un-Hollywood feel to it and the characters develop in a way that’s believably subtle; but it also frequently meanders and loses focus, especially in the movie’s midsection. One subplot involving the ill-advised criminal activities of Scott’s friends never justifies its existence, and culminates in the movie’s worst scene: a botched robbery that Apatow can’t decide between playing as gritty or slapstick.
Plenty of the director’s other trademarks make an appearance as well. Of course, there are the extended sessions of improvised barb-trading that are generally funny but prone to wearing out their welcome; it doesn’t help that the sparring isn’t up to the brilliantly profane standard of Apatow’s best work. Then there’s the requisite adorable kids, this time in the form of Ray’s two children who Scott is assigned to walk to school. And – as has sadly been the case since Funny People – there’s the tendency for everything to go on just a little too long. The King of Staten Island clocks in at an excessive 136 minutes, earning perhaps 110 of them.
But there’s plenty to recommend in The King of Staten Island as well. The main cast is fantastic, especially Davidson, who’s capable of being funny and shockingly bitter at the same time. A lesser actor would have let Scott slip into a millennial slacker cliché, but Davidson brings enough autobiographical depth to the character for him to feel like a real person. Marisa Tomei has a far more standard role as Scott’s long-suffering mother, but does great with what she’s given. And Bill Burr is a revelation as Ray, communicating a sweet vulnerability without sacrificing his hilariously acerbic schtick. Apatow does better directing his actors through the more emotional scenes than the comedic ones, which too often devolve into forced wackiness that clashes with the otherwise down-to-earth tone.
In the end, The King of Staten Island has enough going for it to be worth a casual watch. Aside from Davidson’s unique perspective, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before: it’s a comfortable, bloated, and semi-deep Apatow dramedy that manages to succeed on the strength of decent writing and a handful of great performances. It’s a successful execution of an increasingly-stale formula, entertaining in the moment but ultimately failing to make a lasting impression.