All the way through Judd Apatow's The King of Staten Island, people keep asking 20-something deadbeat Scott, played by Saturday Night Live's Pete Davidson, when he's going to get his life together. Similarly, I spent the whole movie, all 136 minutes of it, wanting to ask Apatow when he plans on finally making another kind of film: It's one of his loose, melancholy comedies about a loveable loser whose lack of ambition and self-control strains his relationships to the point that he's forced to finally become a grown-up.
Yes, this is yet another amiable, serious-in-places comedy Apatow has co-authored with his star, and it isn't even the first time we've seen Davidson play a drug-dealing burnout this year: Just a few months ago, he had a similar part in the charming indie film Big Time Adolescence. Perhaps Davidson is forever cursed to play this role, basically a fictionalized version of his own self-deprecating stoner persona, and he's gone so far as to use events from his own life in this script.
Davidson plays Scott, who hasn't been the same since his firefighter dad died on the job when Scott was only 7. (In real life, Davidson's father died while responding to the Sept. 11 attacks.) He still lives with his mother, he smokes too much weed and he spends most of his free time giving his equally stoned friends regrettable tattoos. Scott's little sister is heading to college and yet he seems stuck in neutral, until his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) starts dating another firefighter, a divorced dad named Ray (Bill Burr), which finally inspires him to get his ass in gear.
As is the case with every Apatow film, the ensemble cast is terrific. Burr and Tomei have nice chemistry; Bel Powley stands out as Scott's perpetually exasperated girlfriend; Steve Buscemi is warm and wise as the fire captain who lets Scott crash in the station; Pamela Adlon is Ray's ex-wife, who invites Scott into her kitchen for wine and weed. And Davidson acquits himself well, winning us over even as he's making the worst possible decisions.
But he's perhaps too winning. Davidson has often mined potentially dark material — his struggles with addiction, Crohn's disease, depression and borderline personality disorder — for comedy, but Apatow sands down his sharp edges. Scott passingly mentions being on antidepressants and having mental health problems, but the movie walks away from those issues.
You could apply all the standard criticisms of Apatow's earlier films (even the good ones) to The King of Staten Island: It's at least a half-hour too long, it only sometimes finds the right tone, it follows a predictable dramatic arc. There's a charming, low-key, 100-minute character piece stuck inside this flabby, unfocused one, and it never quite breaks out. ♦