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Film Review: “The King of Staten Island” Is a Jester Without Wit

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 11th, 2020

Film poster: “The King of Staten Island”

The King of Staten Island (Judd Apatow, 2020) 1½ out of 4 stars.

If cinema as therapy is your thing, then there is a very good chance that Judd Apatow’s latest, The King of Staten Island, will win your heart and mind. In it, comedian and Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson plays a loosely autobiographical version of himself, a depressed twentysomething still mourning the childhood loss of his beloved firefighter father (Davidson lost his, also a firefighter, on September 11, 2001). That underlying truth makes the film resonate more than it should, given that, at 137 minutes, it overstays its welcome, no matter the occasional charms. Perhaps I’m just not one for films about emotionally stunted men where women are but one-dimensional agents of change. Or maybe I’ve just grown increasingly tired of Apatow’s soggy mise-en-scène, ever more ponderous in each successive outing. Still, there’s some real heart here, even if directed inward in a plaintive cry of self-involvement.

Davidson, who co-wrote the film with Apatow, plays Scott, a variant of the character he played in the very recent Big Time Adolescence, all weed and no wit. There, the shtick worked better, as he was not the protagonist, but the foil. Hanging with his homies, on New York’s Staten Island, all of whom, like him, are overgrown teens, Scott watches as his younger sister (Apatow’s daughter Maude) heads off to college (something he never did), leaving him home alone with mom (Marisa Tomei, Spider-Man: Homecoming), who so far has indulged his every desire, given that he still hasn’t recovered from the long-ago death of dad. Which brings us to the most problematic message of the film, that boys without fathers are apparently destined to remain boys. Sure enough, once Scott eventually finds not one, but a bevy of male role models, he improves. That’s quite a lesson.

Marisa Tomei and Pete Davidson in KING OF STATEN ISLAND ©Universal Pictures

Scott has another woman in his life, high-school chum Kelsey (Bel Powley, Wilding), who finds his hang-dog look and body covered, as is Davidson’s, with amateurish tattoos, appealing, though she wishes he would commit. When not with her or at his bus-boy job, Scott seems destined for trouble, whether it’s giving out unwanted tattoos to minors or almost engaging in robbery. Since he seems incapable of growth, redemption will have to come from without. Not surprisingly, once the women turn on Scott and force him into the company of real men, courtesy of mom’s new boyfriend (comedian Bill Burr), a firefighter like his dad, that’s when he can grow up. Men need men, and women are props on the way to male fulfillment and empowerment.

Along the way, there are scenes of genuinely moving appeal, given Davidson’s natural charisma, and perhaps if the film were significantly shorter these would stand out even more. Tomei and Powley shine, but are not given enough to do. The tone is all over the place, as well, jumping from funny bits to sentimental ones to others that deserve neither approach (like tattooing a child). This king is more like a jester, only without enough jokes.

Pete Davidson and Bill Burr in KING OF STATEN ISLAND ©Universal Pictures
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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