Over and over during the press tour for The Big Sick in 2017, I remember screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon talking about how their producer Judd Apatow had kept hectoring them to make their script more real, more personal, to go with honesty over punchlines whenever in doubt. It was good advice then, and I wish director Apatow had taken producer Apatow’s advice.
Instead, his latest, The King of Staten Island, seems intent on turning Pete Davidson’s actually-interesting personal journey into yet another one of Apatow’s overlong Man-Child Belatedly Learns To Clean His Room sagas. It’s a movie that expends most of its energy trying to turn a unicorn into a horse. Because hey, people buy horses, right? We know how to sell a horse.
Pete Davidson is the rare, possibly historically unique comedian who is actually more famous for being a Famous Person than he is for being a comedian. Even before he started dating pop stars he had a compelling backstory: he was a teen comedian whose dad died on 9/11 (not to be confused with Steve Rannazzizi, the comedian who lied about 9/11). He got cast in SNL when he was just 20, one of the youngest cast members ever and the first to be born in the ’90s. As a person, Davidson also has the rare gift of being able to understand and joke about his own public persona (“I look like I make vape juice in a bathtub,” as he put it on SNL). I interviewed him a few years back, and to this day he stands out as one of my more candid and charming interviewees.
Apatow seems to understand that Davidson himself is part of the draw, so he incorporates much of Davidson’s real story, like his real hometown (Staten Island), the fact that his father was a fireman who died when he was a kid, and his struggles with mental health. Only now Davidson is “Scott Carlin,” whose father died not in a terrorist attack but in a hotel fire, and instead of a comedian he’s a directionless stoner who dabbles in tattooing and lives with his mom (played by Marisa Tomei). Notice how every change here seems to make the story less interesting?
Trouble is, we’ve seen “immature guy learns to grows up” before. The King Of Staten Island never fully reckons with its own central hook — Scott’s mental health issues, which are kind of just a cutesy punchline — and it simultaneously attempts to capitalize on Davidson’s celebrity status while for story purposes pretending it doesn’t exist. It’s a little reminiscent of the later seasons of The Jersey Shore, after The Situation and Snooki and the gang had become wildly famous, when the slavering hordes and exorbitant nightclub appearance fees that followed them wherever they went had become the most interesting part of the story, yet the producers had to painstakingly ignore it all in order to keep selling us the antiquated tale of regular young people hooking up and acting stupid. Sometimes selling what you know keeps you from realizing what you have.
Likewise, we now get Pete Davidson as a slacker whose overachieving sister — played by Apatow’s daughter, Maude, who’s a good enough actress for me not to mind the nepotism — both outshines and resents him, whose girlfriend (Bel Powley) just wants to be acknowledged, whose loser friends get him into trouble, etc. — all the totems of stunted adolescence, as it’s popularly conceived. Apatow’s movies are always notoriously too long, but this time it isn’t self-indulgence that’s keeping The King Of Staten Island over two hours (137 minutes, to be exact) it’s more a failure to choose between four or five different stock storylines.
“Scott” at one point attempts to tattoo a kid in a park. The kid’s irate father, a fireman played by Bill Burr, shows up at the door the next day and ends up dating Scott’s mom. Burr is shockingly great in the role and when he winds up becoming friends with Davidson’s character, the two have genuine chemistry. Bro-ing down at the firehouse, they share the film’s first non-contrived-seeming camaraderie, which might have made up for the slog of the film’s first two acts if they hadn’t been so damned long. Did we really need to wait 90+ minutes for them to get to the firehouse? Did Scott really have to try to sabotage his mom’s relationship first and have blowout fights over who she was dating? Is this story really to hinge on the assumption that a 24-year-old man would interfere in his mom’s love life? Woof. Also, gross.
The one bright spot in culture is that we now have a template for how this could’ve been handled better. Dave on FX stars Dave Burd/Lil Dicky as himself, in a show about an unexpectedly viral rapper trying to navigate sudden fame. It’s interesting precisely because it seems to understand what The King of Staten Island does not: that actual success and its byproducts are more compelling than fake failure.