Judd Apatow’s latest venture probably isn’t his funniest or most memorable but it sure is packed with that trademark heart and reinforces the fact that even an average Apatow flick is still yards above Hollywood’s average summer blockbuster. Apatow films are known as being funny, sweet and long – in my mind “The King of Staten Island” lives up to two of the three.
The star of “The King of Staten Island” is Pete Davidson from Saturday Night Live whose father was a firefighter killed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the film’s central premise is based loosely off this. Davidson plays 24 year old Scott Carlin, an aimless young guy whose firefighter Dad was killed when he was 7 and has grown up never really resolving his loss and emotionally distancing himself from anybody who tries to get close to him. Scott is unemployed, lives with his long suffering Mum (Marissa Tomei) and sister Claire (Judd Appatow’s daughter Maude) and only really dreams of becoming a tattoo artist while in the meantime getting stoned with his bum mates. When Scott’s Mum starts dating local fireman Ray (Bill Burr), he is forced to confront the loss of his Dad and recognise that it wouldn’t be dishonouring his memory for him to be happy.
Davidson is actually a surprisingly good lead – he’s essentially playing himself (the real Pete Davidson has struggled with mental health issues of his own) but has good comic timing and is pretty endearing for a character which on paper shouldn’t really be that interesting. I’m not sure if this is going to be a springboard for Davidson as an actor into other films; Lady Gaga was sensational playing a version of herself in last year’s “A Star is Born” but that doesn’t in itself lend to her versatility as an actress. Regardless, Davidson more than holds his own here and gives probably the best performance in the entire thing. It’s not that the supporting cast isn’t commendable, they all do pretty well (Bill Burr as Ray and Bel Powley as Scott’s love interest are particularly likable and couldn’t be more New-Yorker if they tried) its just that they’re not given too many hilarious things to say or do. The film is fairly funny throughout but I definitely won’t be quoting it with my mates like I would for “Knocked Up” for instance – Ray is kind of funny when he tells Scott that there’s no way he’d drown in a backyard pool because he’s 8 feet fucking tall, but he’s no McLovin.
Where the film really excels is in the sentimental stuff; I initially thought that Scott’s sense of identity and purpose would come from his hanging out with Ray’s two little kids and that he would undertake responsibility that way, but I liked that it ended up coming from Scott’s Dad’s firefighter buddies. How it all plays out is a little simplistic but then again it’s a simple enough message; the firemen teach Scott the inherent value of hard work, personal responsibility and sacrifice in amongst drunken bar sing-alongs and a series of early morning wake ups with the fire hose.
They reinforce to him that everybody goes through hardship and the sign of true character is not to wallow in self-pity but to rise above adversity and make the most of what life has to offer. It’s a theme which is alluded to earlier in the film too, there’s a nice scene between Scott and Claire before she goes off to college where she tells him that just because their Dad died doesn’t give him an excuse to wallow in it and throw the rest of his life away. Some of the heartfelt conversations between Scott and his Dad’s fire buddies are a little heavy handed but they’re still kind of sweet. Its a nice moment in particular when Scott’s told about how his Dad used to do coke and get up to mischief; he had always been told how much of a hero he was, but this was the first he had ever heard of his Dad being funny and flawed and human, just like Scott.
I ended up liking this movie quite a bit. It’s still not one of my favourite Apatow flicks, (although it is an admittedly high bar to breach), but I like that Davidson’s story and the memory of his Dad have been honoured. While I did miss the biting dialogue and sensational supporting characters that made “The Forty Year Old Virgin” and “Superbad” such iconic and unique properties, I still had a good time with this and found the film’s underlying message to be quite a beautiful one.
By Jock Lehman