Judd Apatow’s movies champion the slacker and serve as vehicles for established comics like Seth Rogen (Knocked Up) and Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), delivering comedy that’s improvisational, gross-out funny and bittersweet.
The director’s latest, The King of Staten Island, ticks all of the above boxes with an emphasis on the latter. His muse this time is SNL regular and stand-up comic Pete Davidson, who also co-scripted what is essentially a semi-autobiographical story. Davidson was seven years old when he lost his firefighter father to the 9/11 tragedy, and his character Scott Carlin is similarly grappling with the fallout of his dad’s death during a heroic rescue attempt in a burning building.
Still grieving, 24-year-old Scott exists in a fog of weed smoke, antidepressants and zero self-esteem, spending the days getting wasted with his buddies in a basement and the occasional hook up with sometime girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley). His dream of straightening out and bettering himself involves opening a ‘tattoo restaurant’ – an unachievable goal not just because it’s a ludicrous idea, but also because he lacks the skill as an artist and the motivation to make it happen. So he’s left to lament the loss of his dad, his sister’s departure for college, and his mother’s new relationship with firefighter Ray (Bill Burr), which he does his best to sabotage.
The film plots a journey to self improvement for Scott, albeit an unconventional and circuitous one. It’s an exploration of the impact of grief, PTSD and social withdrawal that’s anchored by an honest, funny and hangdog performance from Davidson. This is probably the most dramatic film Apatow has delivered to date, but still flavoured with his trademark frank dialogue about sex, colourful players, and a love of his native New York, whose less trendy borough of the title (the one with the famous ferry) is a supporting character.
Initial reaction to The King of Staten Island could be to dismiss it as the type of film where not a lot happens, and when things do begin to gather momentum, the curtain falls. But when allowed to properly sink in, the overall effect is a heartfelt and entertaining character study that resonates with truth, and whose bite-sized pieces add up to a largely satisfying whole.
In cinemas: July 16, 2020 (excluding metropolitan Melbourne)
Starring: Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bel Powley
Directed by: Judd Apatow