Comedic directors rarely morph into established auteurs in modern cinema, yet Judd Apatow has accomplished just that with his storied career. Along with producing and writing some of the millennium’s most beloved comedic works (Bridesmaids and Superbad come to mind), Apatow has also established a distinct, improve-heavy directorial approach with winning crowd-pleasers like Knocked Up and Trainwreck. With his latest venture The King of Staten Island, the comedic stalwart offers a satisfying evolution of his craft, creating an endeavor that feels equally grounded and personal.
Based loosely on Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson’s life story, The King of Staten Island follows Scott (Davidson), a burnout stuck in a state of arrested development from his firefighter father’s passing. When his supportive mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) begins to date another firefighter Ray (Bill Burr), Scott is confronted with his lifelong grief as he connects to his father’s past.
Apatow’s filmography features a plethora of projects that extenuate the talents of their uniquely-fitted lead star (Adam Sandler in Funny People), with Pete Davidson joining that impressive lineage with ease. Playing off his real-life persona as Scott, an affable, quick-witted slacker who quietly carries his overwhelming emotional baggage, Davidson shines in a performance that is simultaneously humorous and revealing. It’s a joy to see the actor operate in an intimate platform that allows him a therapeutic opportunity to explore his grief and traumas, with his adept performance signaling a bright future in the film industry.
Marisa Tomei dials her performance to perfection as Margie, acting as a supportive pillar in Scott’s life that desperately tries to shake his life into motion. Perhaps the actor that shares the most screen time with Davidson is provocative Bostonian comedian Bill Burr, with the two developing a natural rapport that starts from a place of mutual distaste before altering into a genuine connection. Burr can draw laughs with impressive ease, while thankfully morphing Ray’s New Yorkian attitude into a genuine character.
The King of Staten Island not only portrays the evolution of Davidson’s acting career, but also a decidedly more grounded effort on Apatow’s part. Working with acclaimed DOP Robert Elswit, Apatow paints Staten Island in a loving, yet honest manner, capturing a suburb that bristles with life despite its modest appearance. The camera work is fluid and free-ranging, with its grounded, Sundance-indie approach fitting the project to a tee. Even the aspects of the director’s style that some criticize fit this project like a glove, with its meandering pace being an ideal fit for Scott’s aimless journey of self-discovery.
Rarely is there a dull moment buried in King of Staten Island, but opportunities are missed to make this grounded coming of age portrait even more impactful. It’s a shame that the script sanitizes some of its more intriguing topics, with mentions of Scott’s mental illness and criminal wrongdoings having little dramatic payoff. I also wish that some of the film’s colorful supporting players got more of an opportunity to shine, especially Bel Powley as Scott’s charming on-again-off-again girlfriend.
Bookended by two cathartic Kid Cudi tracks, The King of Staten Island proudly encapsulates Pete Davidson’s distinct sensibilities on its sleeve in a winning coming-of-age crowd-pleaser.
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