Judd Apatow’s King of Staten Island was supposed to open the SXSW film festival back in March, and I actually wonder if — even with high-grade festival fever — Austin moviegoers would have been that excited coming out of an overly long, meandering relationship drama featuring an SNL cast member who is still more famous for the women he has dated than his own contributions to the entertainment world?
That said, I have been eying King of Staten Island as the ideal test case for releasing comedies on VOD for nearly three months. The results, so far, are promising but not conclusive. However, I no longer believe that King of Staten Island is a particularly good test case for bypassing theaters and releasing comedies digitally because Staten Island is barely a comedy. Some of that is by design, and some of it is because the attempts at comedy often fall flat, like about 40 percent of the movie itself.
Ultimately, however, the biggest problem with King of Staten Island is that elements of the film most grounded in Davidson’s real life are what work the least. As anyone basing a movie on their real-life might be, Davidson and Apatow were evidently protective and reluctant to edit out the truly autobiographical elements because of Davidson’s personal attachment. “You can’t cut that! It’s true!” The movie would have been much improved if it had maintained its focus almost solely on the relationship between Scott (Pete Davidson), Scott’s mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei), and Ray Bishop (Bill Burr, playing a firefighter character without an apparent real-life counterpart).
Truth: The first 45 minutes of King of Staten Island are trash. It’s a mess that belongs in a different movie altogether, one that would have gone straight to VOD before the pandemic. It’s designed to lay the foundation for the rest of the movie — Scott is a f**k-up with no ambition who lives with his mom and sits around smoking pot all day — but that could have easily been established in one or two sequences before getting on with the movie itself. Instead, we spend roughly 45 minutes with Scott’s friends who — for reasons I won’t spoil — we barely see again for the rest of the film. Likewise, there’s also a love interest in Staten Island that feels tacked-on and unnecessary to the rest of the film (that said, Bel Powley — who plays the love interest, Kelsey — is very good, especially once you realize she’s not actually from Staten Island, but a proper British actress). Scott also has a sister (based on Davidson’s real-life sister), but she, too, is largely extraneous to the plot and could have easily been cut if not for the fact that Apatow would have had to cut his own daughter, Maude, who plays Claire in the film.
Almost everything that has to do with Scott’s friends, sister, and girlfriend is gratuitous and navel-gaze-y (and boring, and poorly shot), while Davidson and Apatow (who co-wrote the film along with Dave Sirus (SNL)) also introduce — but never explore — Scott’s mental illness (in fact, the Crohn’s disease that Scott shares in common with Pete is given more attention).
In fact, The King of Staten Island doesn’t really get going until the new boyfriend of Margie shows up. His name is Ray, and he’s played by Bill Burr. Let me preface this by saying: I think that Bill Burr is a piece of shit whose entire career has been built around shouting down those voices who would challenge the structures of power under the auspices of anti-political correctness. What Bill Burr really means is: “Stop upsetting a system that benefits me!” That whole Boston-accent, friend-of-the-people, telling-it-like-it-is schtick is total bullshit. Aside from scene-stealing eye twinkles from Steve Buscemi, Burr is the best thing about this film, a compelling step-father type, and “stepfather” is a personality trait that Bill Burr has down cold: He plays the defensive nice guy with a pile of grievances to a tee because that’s what Bill Burr’s career has been built upon.
It works to surprisingly good effect in King of Staten Island, and because Scott plays a character who is also full of grievances, the two mix like oil and water until they are forced to co-exist, at which point they transform into a delicious vinaigrette — it’s sour, but in a good way. The centerpiece of Staten Island is the relationship between Burr and Davidson’s characters, and to the extent that the other characters and subplots are not serving that relationship, the movie falters. Badly. The story veers into self-indulgence, and Apatow’s refusal to edit it down feels like Apatow repeating the mistakes of Funny People all over again.
Two hours and seventeen minutes is too long for a movie with so little to say. It’s also ironic that the much better Pete Davidson film, Big Time Adolescence — which is not autobiographical — is nevertheless spiritually a better reflection of Davidson’s life (it also clocks in at perfectly suitable 90 minutes). As for Staten Island? There’s a good film in here, but it is buttressed by too many half-formed ideas and poorly written characters, all of which distract from the movie’s core relationship: Two assholes who bond over a woman neither one of them deserves.