The King of Staten Island” is the most prominent of the few brave films that switched from theatrical release to video-on-demand amid the pandemic, and it’s also a good one. It had been long enough since I’d seen a good Judd Apatow movie – 2012’s “This Is 40,” the last film he both wrote and directed – that it’s a revelation to rediscover his sharp dialog and knack for showing that deeply flawed people are still worth rooting for.
An even bigger revelation is Pete Davidson as the title character, Scott Carlin. Apatow mostly drops his go-to actors, who have aged out of coming-of-age roles, and Scott is the type who would’ve been played by Jay Baruchel back in the day. Comedian-by-trade Davidson doesn’t have movie-star looks; he has an oversized mouth both aesthetically and verbally.
Scott continues the recent trend of movies with mentally ill people in lead roles, and “Staten Island” is rather progressive in the way this 24-year-old knows he has a problem, and openly speaks about it, but can’t figure out how to overcome it. Like other recent films tackling mental health, this one avoids talking about medication or a clearly stated diagnosis (ADD is mentioned offhand, depression is implied, and marijuana is his self-treatment), but any dishonesty there is overcome by Davidson’s heartfelt turn.
Internally damaged from the loss of his firefighter father when he was 7 – something that’s clear to his nurse mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) and just-graduated younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow) – Scott tries to protect others from absorbing his problems. Most striking is his relationship with could-be-girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley), whom he keeps at arm’s length. The guy who gets away with bad behavior because everyone recognizes his big heart is an Apatow cliché, perhaps, but Davidson nails it.
Several other performances are revelatory. Powley is English but she makes Kelsey a dyed-in-the-wool Staten Islander, with both her accent and her almost foolish belief in the borough’s prospects. Maude Apatow graduates from the cute kid in her dad’s previous projects to play Claire, who is both annoyed by her brother and flailingly hopeful that he’ll get it together. (Scott wants to be a tattoo artist, and Claire buys him some paints and brushes in a desperate bid to help him.)
And comedian Bill Burr (“Breaking Bad”) gives a naturalistic turn as mustachioed fireman Ray, holding his own across from Oscar winner Tomei, with whom he has great romantic chemistry.
Davidson co-writes this film with Apatow and Dave Sirus, basing it on his own father, who was killed on 9/11. While this isn’t exactly “Backdraft,” we do get a good sense of the firefighting job, notably the long shifts at the station bunkhouse, but also the way that lifestyle can build camaraderie. Steve Buscemi – another actor whose skills overcome his non-movie-star looks – anchors this group, which I suspect includes real firefighters in the smaller roles.
“Staten Island” is low-key funny as heck thanks to the dialog. Although it has some dramatic sequences such as an ill-advised robbery by Scott’s friends, it’s the banter and absurd little behaviors that provide the laughs and momentum. Not-too-bright Scott nonetheless has a way of combining big words and vulgarities to create phrases like “perusing d**k.” Or he’ll make nonsensical observations that nonetheless make perfect sense, such as his complaint while washing a fire truck that “it’s just gonna get fire on it.”
At 2 hours and 16 minutes, “The King of Staten Island” has the usual Apatowian problem of being objectively too long. (It’s no wonder Apatow switched back to TV in recent years, where scripts are allowed more breathing room.) But that’s what makes it a good choice as a major film to go VOD during the cinema shutdown. It would push a theater-goer’s patience and bladder, but it’s perfect for enjoying at home in a handful of sittings.