A curator of comedy since childhood, Judd Apatow used to interview stand-ups for his Long Island high school radio station, collecting tales of the trade from the likes of Jerry Seinfeld while pulling a fast one on publicists who had no idea the station’s signal didn’t stretch further than the school’s parking lot. As a producer, Apatow has always had an indispensable eye for talent, with television programs like “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Freaks and Geeks” and “Girls” providing launchpads for entire generations of stars while films such as “Anchorman” and “Superbad” took almost no time to become enshrined as contemporary comedy classics.
It’s as a director that he disappoints, with most of Apatow’s films designed to introduce his discoveries to a mass, middlebrow audience via stories sanding away everything that made them interesting in the first place. Steve Carell in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Seth Rogen in “Knocked Up” and Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck” are all wildly funny, charismatic non-conformists who over the course of exorbitant running times must learn how to stop being so irresponsibly amusing and settle down into boringly conventional modes of suburban domesticity. Their story arcs are straight out of a repressed, pre-counterculture sensibility, and the reason you only ever remember the earlier, funnier parts of these movies is because their second hours are like watching a light get snuffed out.
(The lone exception–and the only Apatow film I unequivocally adore–is his bruisingly unpleasant 2009 Cassavetes homage “Funny People,” which was full of fascinatingly naked, undigested self-loathing and received with such sheer hostility that I worry it spooked all the participants away from ever trying anything like it again. Except maybe Sandler.)
THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND slavishly follows the old formula in Apatow’s attempt to tame Pete Davidson, the problematic “Saturday Night Live” star and a tabloid favorite for his famous girlfriends, drug problems, and reportedly gargantuan penis. Scripted by Apatow with Davidson and “SNL” writer Dave Sirus, this semi-biographical film skimps on the more colorful aspects of its star’s personal history and instead becomes another tired tale of a twenty-something slacker who needs to grow up and get off his mom’s couch.
Said mother is played by Marisa Tomei in an exquisitely unflattering haircut, spot-on specific to this most unloved of New York City boroughs. Widowed Margie dotes on her firstborn son Scott, who despite being on the downslope of his twenties still sleeps past noon and lounges around playing video games all day, snorting pills with his buddies and occasionally hooking up with a childhood friend (the effervescent Bel Powley). Kid sister Claire–played by the director’s daughter Maude–is already off to college, but Scott’s not going anywhere. Then everything changes when his mom starts dating a surly, bullheaded local firefighter played by Boston’s own Bill Burr.
Scott’s dad was a fireman who died in the line of duty when he was just a little kid, something Scott likes to use as a get-out-of-jail-free card whenever he’s called on his nonsense and an experience that left him with understandably raw feelings regarding our first responders. (In real life Davidson’s father was a firefighter killed on 9/11, but the movie doesn’t dare go there.)
Early on there are inklings of an amusing generational pissing contest between brusque, old-school blowhard Burr and Davidson’s over-sensitive, post-millennial screwup, and I adored how the movie felt obligated to explain Burr’s r-dropping, Norfolk County honk the same way ‘80s actioners always threw in a few lines to say why Arnold Schwarzenegger sounded so strange. But these draggy, heavily improvised scenes don’t ever really get anywhere. In particular, a promising encounter between our star and his rival’s wine mom ex-wife (Pamela Adlon) hints at all sorts of frustratingly unrealized possibilities, and the meager payoff doesn’t even occur onscreen.
I do like Davidson a lot. I think he has an endearingly messy magnetism and feel sorry that a proper release for his far superior Sundance favorite “Big Time Adolescence” got scuttled by the COVID-19 crisis. (It’s now streaming on Hulu.) But in “The King of Staten Island” he’s frankly not funny enough to get away with being such a little shit, and Davidson’s done no favors by the movie’s monotonous pacing and directionless, dead-end subplots. There’s no need to saddle Scott’s loser buddies with story arcs, and the exorbitant amount of screen time devoted to the director’s daughter–a character who could have been excised from the film entirely without altering its outcome a single iota–is inexcusable for a movie that makes so many jokes about nepotism. (Though in the grand tradition of Tori Spelling, I notice Maude is insisting to the press that she had to audition for the role.)
By my watch it took a full 93 minutes–longer than the entirety of “Big Time Adolescence”–before Scott finally starts hanging out at the firehouse with some of his dad’s old buddies and it feels like “The King Of Staten Island” actually begins in earnest. No points for guessing that our screwed-up kid learns some important lessons about pride, manhood, and responsibility through his back-slapping, ball-busting banter with the FDNY’s finest–including an extended cameo by actual New York City fireman Steve Buscemi–which is all pretty cornball and retrograde, but at least it’s a direction. (I’m always astonished at what a loudmouth liberal Apatow is on social media while making some of the most conservative movies in Hollywood. The montage during which Scott learns how to fold a flag is way more jingoistic than any Eastwood picture.)
“Almost every scene in the movie is double or triple the length it needs to be because of improvisation,” Apatow told Indiewire last week, so at least you heard it from him first. The great Robert Elwsit is the latest legendary cinematographer to fall victim to Apatow’s shooting style, in which he overlights everything and covers with a couple of cameras in medium shots so the actors can wander around doing whatever they want.
“The King Of Staten Island” is the first big summer studio blockbuster to forego a theatrical engagement in the wake of coronavirus, which might be for the best as its go-nowhere storylines and visual indifference will probably play better at home when you’re stoned and looking at your phone. That way you might not notice that we’re supposed to believe Scott has spent the whole movie in love with someone he hasn’t mentioned for over an hour. However unconvincingly, he still needs to chase her while sappy music swells not because we really believe he has any feelings for this sad, slighted woman, but rather because that’s what Apatow’s formula requires for the movie to be able to end.•••
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality