THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND. Nobody could accuse me of being on trend or up on what the kids are into. But even I know Pete Davidson is a pop-cultural big deal and I don't get it. To clarify, I enjoy his work: He's brought an irreverence and unexpectedly insightful point of view to Saturday Night Live in his time there. His standup, while maybe not revelatory or revolutionary, is well-constructed and very much his own. But why the internet has gone all-in on what he's wearing and who he's dating remains a mystery to me. (Kids these days.)
And so it was a little surprising to me that The King of Staten Island, a thinly-veiled autobiography, would be one of the noisiest releases of the COVID summer. While the theaters are starting to open again (as infections surge and sheltering in place again looms large), studios continue to push back the release dates of their prestige pictures and tent-poles. The Academy Awards have been moved to late April, 2021 and it seems to be a bellwether of the attitude of the movie industry at large: "Let's just wait until things go back to normal." Granted, there have been tentative moves to adapt to the idea that normal may require redefining, with new streaming platforms rolling out and premium rentals becoming more common. But the pandemic has once again demonstrated that Hollywood as we have known it is a flat-footed, largely outmoded business that relies on convention, rather than innovation or even adaptability, to generate its revenue. Which makes the VOD release of The King of Staten Island doubly surprising — not only is Universal betting on a Judd Apatow-helmed Pete Davidson vehicle to be a big summer hit, but they also planted a flag by keeping it out of theaters altogether. We'll have to defer to history as to the wisdom of both decisions. What we have for now, though, is the document itself.
Apatow's brand — reverence for comedy; earnest examinations of life as a series of embarrassments occasionally redeemed by kindness; existential angst held at bay by sarcasm — has (no spoilers) always worked for me. In fact, when we first sheltered in place (oh, those halcyon days) my wife and I burned through his catalog as both a reminder of a simpler past and an antidote to a shitty present. In so doing, I came to a clearer understanding of the growing sophistication and intimacy of his storytelling. As much as the work is all of a piece, it evinces the continuous development and artistic evolution of its creator. Where The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007) and, to a lesser extent, its sequel This Is 40 (2012) lead with concept and rely on joke frequency to maintain momentum, Funny People (2009) and Trainwreck (2015), while still hilarious, leave more room for rumination and emotional nuance. They are deceptively complex, emotionally resonant dramas built on the framework of comedy. It's a neat trick and, while it may not work for everybody, it speaks to Apatow's connection to and investment in the stories he tells. With Trainwreck and now The King of Staten Island, he has managed to increase that investment, to personalize the storytelling while also absenting himself as a subject — it could be argued that all of his earlier movies are, at least to some degree, autobiographical — and the work has benefitted. The King of Staten Island is the most assured, most polished, perhaps least-pretentious addition to the Apatow canon. It signals the continuing maturation of a major voice in American cinema (I'll save the screed on the at-large dismissal of the importance of comedy as an artform for another day) and serves as a lasting example of mastery making the difficult seem effortless.
Scott (Davidson) is a burnout, to both use a bad pun and to put too fine a point on it. When his firefighter dad died on the job — this is drawn from Davidson's life, although the movie smartly omits the fact that his father died saving lives on 9/11 — it put the brakes on Scott's development. Having lost a hero and a best friend, he went subterranean, living on weed smoke and the generosity of his long suffering mom Margie (Marisa Tomei). In his mid-20s, though, the combination of narrowly avoiding jail and Margie finding new love with a firefighter named Ray (Bill Burr) force Scott to conduct an emotional self-audit and wrestle with his sublimated self.
It's a straightforward story, but each moment is so suffused with emotional truth that it reflects the second-by-second, simultaneous, impossible complexity and stultifying simplicity of life as it so often lived. It's also leavened with a level of humor to which most of us can only aspire and acted with a sophistication and involvement not often seen in mainstream comedy. R. 136M. VIDEO ON DEMAND.
John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.