“What if I die tomorrow?” For Scott (Pete Davidson), the rudderless protagonist of Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island,” this question, often deployed to guilt-trip friends and family, is not hypothetical. It’s an everyday possibility. For a comedy about young people, mortality suffuses its bones, best foreshadowed by its nerve-wracking prologue: Scott, driving on a highway and closing his eyes for an agonizing stretch of time, as if daring death.
“The King of Staten Island,” so far the most high-profile 2020 release to jettison its theatrical run for a home-video premiere starting today, is a star vehicle for “Saturday Night Live’s” Davidson, who inhabits Apatow’s bleakest, most misanthropic lead since 2009’s “Funny People.” A jobless, talent-starved 24-year-old tattoo artist who lives at home, and harbors a half-baked dream to open a restaurant/tattoo parlor hybrid, Scott still grieves the loss of his father, a firefighter who died, when Scott was 7, attempting to save strangers in a hotel fire.
Unable to measure up to the impossible standards of his dad’s mythic valor, Scott spends his days loitering in oblivion with similarly wayward friends, smoking copious weed to dull the effects of his raft of maladies—depression, ADD, Crohn’s disease. It isn’t until Scott’s mother (Marisa Tomei at her usual best) begins a relationship with a divorced fireman (Bill Burr) that Scott is forced to engage his father’s legend and, possibly, chart his own destiny.
Like 2017’s “The Big Sick,” which Apatow produced, “The King of Staten Island” is a canny autofiction, borrowing details and emotions from its lead actor/co-writer’s biography. Davidson’s firefighter father did heroically sacrifice himself—he was a first responder on 9-11—and Davidson has been vocal about his own battles with depression.
It’s also a showcase for Apatow’s easy surety with millennial actors, who interact with the director’s trademark improvisatory camaraderie. Apatow sets out to capture a place and a culture as much as a troubled family, and he allows the most neglected New York City borough to emerge as a tapestry of felled dreams and salt-of-the-earth strivers. As usual for Apatow, “The King of Staten Island” is long—136 minutes—but not indulgently so: Not since Billy Wilder has a director of comedies earned this much autonomy to potentially overstay his welcome.
If I’m skeptical of this crowd-pleaser, it’s only because the now-patented and oft-mimicked Apatow amalgam of sardonic humor and cloying sentiment leans too heavily on the latter. The director is not above such clichés as the self-improvement montage, the syrupy score, the storybook kiss. It’s almost startling, in this most jaded of times, how earnest—how uncynical—“The King of Staten Island” is. Apatow and Davidson see goodness in everybody, as corny as that sounds for audiences seeking harder, more uncomfortable truths.
We get enough of those in the news cycle; perhaps this classicist paean to positivity is the kind of escape we need right now.
Rent The King of Staten Island now on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Xfinity On Demand, Vudu, Google Play and other streaming providers.
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