Sometimes the movie you’re watching isn’t the movie you think you’re watching. Worse, sometimes it’s not the movie those behind it think they’ve made. With “The King of Staten Island” Judd Apatow has indeed created yet another film about adult men not being able to grow up, but it’s not the dramedy it thinks it is. It is a black comedy, made darker by the fact that it doesn’t know it.
As the story goes, Pete Davidson’s Scott is a ne’er-do-well 24-year-old man. He lives at home. He doesn’t have a job. He sells some drugs, does some drugs, and is a would-be tattoo artist. He has friends whom he uses as canvasses for his less than stellar work and, like him, they seem to be minor drug dealers. Scott also has something of a girlfriend, Kelsey (Bel Powley), but he can’t commit to her and doesn’t want to tell their mutual friends that they’re seeing each other because making it public apparently might ruin it.
He is, as Mr. Strickland would no doubt call him, a slacker. He’s got a plethora of excuses, a few of which are to some degree legitimate, like the death of his firefighter father 17 years earlier, but he uses them as a shield, a way of avoiding ever doing anything and of stopping people getting angry at him when he simply doesn’t bother.
An inordinate amount of time in “The King of Staten Island” is spent depicting Scott’s shortcomings. This is where the movie finds its main source of humor. We are supposed to be amused by Scott’s antics. He treats his sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), and mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), horribly. He and his friends are terrible to a security guard who asks them to stop trespassing. He gets a 9-year-old to agree to getting a tattoo. At some point in a film that we all know is focused redemption, it does indeed become silly, but not in a way that actually makes us laugh.
While some of Scott’s transgressions are minor, too many are not, and yet the movie still wants us to like Scott. It is due to the affability Davidson offers that this largely happens and, as much as that may keep the audience from turning the movie off, it is also a huge problem for Scott. Were he less likable, someone would’ve called him on it years earlier in a way that would have forced change. His winning small and charm have allowed him to become as terrible as he is when we meet him.
The movie finally has the opportunity to get going when Scott finally goes too far, trying to sabotage his mother’s relationship with her new boyfriend, Ray (Bill Burr). Scott experiences “tough love” and has to figure out how he’s actually going to make his way in the world.
One of the grossly disappointing aspects of “The King of Staten Island” is that even after this takes place, even after Scott is pushed into becoming more of an adult, his penance is minimal. He jumps from one potential safety net to the next until he finds one willing to support him.
Does he become a better person? In some respects. Do we want such a series of safety nets for everyone in this world? Without a doubt. Does the movie get to completely punt on the difficult work of Scott solving his problems because of this approach? Absolutely. Even as he is supposed to be a different person at the end of the movie, we learn that he’s still pulling some of the same garbage he did earlier, it’s just the movie doesn’t bother pretending to care anymore.
Seeing that, understanding that, is when the scales fall from one’s eyes. “The King of Staten Island” is a comedy because Scott’s antics are a joke. Any momentary amusement that the movie offers begins to drain away once it becomes clear that in the film’s decision to not bother with real, substantive, change for this bad human being they created, there is little point to any of it all. Scott ends the movie with many of the same problems he has at the start, he has just, momentarily, dialed them down a little… for now.
In “The King of Staten Island,” Tomei is winning, Burr is fantastic, and Davidson really is able to carry the affair. There are a couple of laugh out loud moments. There is a general likability to the entire thing. But then, that moment hits. That moment when it becomes clear that despite “The King of Staten Island” thinking its lead character is on the right track, there is, almost undoubtedly, a comeuppance even larger than the one he just went through on its way. Scott ends the movie doing fewer bad things, not being a better person. He remains one of Apatow’s man children as the credits roll and there is something genuinely sad in that.
This is not a dramedy, it is at best a black comedy and at worst the opening acts of a true tragedy.
photo credit: Universal Studios