[Review] ‘THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND’ isn’t all jokes

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James Clay // Film Critic

THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND

Rated R, 136 minutes.
Director: Judd Apatow
Cast: Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow, Moises Arias, Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson, Luke David Blumm, Alexis Rae Forlenza, Jimmy Tatro, Pamela Adlon and Steve Buscemi

There’s a cheesy yet undeniably infectious pop song by Rihanna called “We Found Love” about searching for solace and acceptance against all the odds. This is at the heart of Judd Apatow’s latest directorial effort, THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND, starring Pete Davidson. It’s doubtful that a pop song, a movie, or even a Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner can help affect change in the world. Still, this indelible comedy is a band-aid that can be a respite from the immense amount of pain millions of Americans are facing. Davidson’s personal – and perhaps biographical – film is about healing internally, learning to love yourself, and searching for new beginnings.

The 26-year-old comedian is having a strange year. His sixth season on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE was truncated to digital spaces following the COVID-19 outbreak; his Netflix comedy special ALIVE FROM NEW YORK dropped in February; and THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND was supposed to have a buzzy premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Lest we forget his little talked about coming-of-age comedy, BIG TIME ADOLESCENCE, is available on HULU. All sides of Pete’s public personality are open on streaming platforms, culminating with THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND dropping on all VOD services beginning June 12th.

This probably isn’t the coming-out party he was hoping for as a public persona, and THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND would have significantly benefited from the communal experience. However, having this story exist on streaming exclusively seems oddly appropriate. Davidson is the comedian for this generation, and most of his die-hard fans would rather catch up with him at home anyways. Davidson positions himself as a world-weary slacker with charm, coupled with an infectious sensibility, and an openness about his mental health is freeing for those searching to find themselves. It’s 2020, and Pete Davidson is saying: It’s OK to be flawed. It’s OK to feel vulnerable. Now, let’s do the work and make things better.

We meet Scott (Davidson) hazily driving down a highway blasting rapper Kid Cudi’s song “Just What I Am.” The song works as an announcement for the 24-year-old basement dweller’s unapologetic view of life. Scott chills, smokes weed and watches TV with his friends Oscar (Ricky Velez), Richie (Lou Wilson), and Igor (Moises Arias). He has a low-key friends-with-benefits situation with the ambitious Kelsey (Bel Powley).

On the surface, Scott is living the dream, but underneath he’s just some dude living in his mother Margie’s (Marisa Tomei) split-level home after his sister Claire (Maude Apatow spouting a subtle East Coast accent) heads off to college. Stuck in a state of arrested development (following the death of his firefighter father when he was only seven years old), he’s the constant subject of worry for his family. They fear his reckless behavior could lead to a stagnant life or something much worse. Afflicted with ADHD, borderline personality disorder, and overall disillusionment with life, Scott finally takes action when Margie begins an intense relationship with the mustachioed Ray (an amazing performance from Bill Burr).

Apatow has never shied away from padding his films with runtimes over two hours, which is incredibly rare for the comedy-drama. Think of filmmakers such as James L. Brooks (AS GOOD AS IT GETS) and David O. Russell (SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK) as his spirit guide. This time, Apatow hits the bullseye. Never has Apatow been so on point collaborating with another creative to make a fully-formed vision that isn’t just a hilarious experience. THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND is the most technically proficient work of his entire career.

Clocking in at a staggering 136 minutes, Apatow crams in dialogue, plot points at a blistering pace within the first act, introducing us to a myriad of regionally specific characters and situations. Be patient if you have issues jumping on the film’s wavelength. The editing, however, by Jay Cassidy (SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK) keeps the plotting from going off the skids while staying true to Apatow’s signature improvisational style.

When THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND is at the height of its powers, the improv is servicing the characters while searching for higher truth and embracing its own shaggy flaws. This isn’t as much of a dig as it is a compliment for a filmmaker who lets the film’s identity inform his own creative choices. Working alongside cinematographer Robert Elswitt (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) is a huge asset for bringing the audience into Scott’s orbit, giving the story a strong sense of place and color palette that provides a shockingly gorgeous visual aesthetic. For a filmmaker whose films made hundreds of millions of dollars telling the stories of stinky dudes who collect toys, Apatow has stayed within those lines while growing immensely as a five-tool filmmaker.

Davidson is, more or less, playing an exaggerated version of himself stumbling through life, and he approaches the role with a fearlessness that speaks to the masses who suffer from crippling behaviors that occupy their potential in life. The directions Scott’s story takes are filled with little diversions and digressions that are true to life, and where he finds comfort comes in some of the most unexpected locations.

THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND isn’t a vanity project per se. The title is a cheeky nod to a place that lives in the shadow of one of the most celebrated cities on the planet. This big-hearted endeavor is reaching out to connect with folks from different creeds, lifestyles, and belief systems. Davidson should have a sense of pride with this calling card because understanding how to change is something we all need help with during these horrible times.

Grade: A

THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND releases Friday on digital platforms.