Life, Loss, and a Few Laughs on Staten Island

8 Jun

King of Staten Island bannerWell, hasn’t this been an unusual year for the movies.

In mid-March, when the world suddenly shut down, the best movie I’d seen so far was probably The Way Back, starring Ben Affleck as an alcoholic basketball coach. And while I don’t say that to dismiss it (the film is legit good, and Affleck delivers an impressive performance), it’s hardly the kind of film that would be remembered later in the year if things were normal.

With most major releases now delayed till whenever, a few that were intended for the big screen have gone direct-to-digital. Fair to say none have been particularly memorable or must-see, and nearly all have been right at home on the small(er) screen. (Unlike, say, the new Bond or Wonder Woman flicks would have been.)

Which brings us to Judd Apatow’s latest, The King of Staten Island, starring Pete Davidson of Saturday Night Live, and Marissa Tomei, moving New York City boroughs from Queens, where she plays Aunt May in the MCU Spider-man movies.

The semi-autobiographical film, which Davidson co-wrote with Apatow and Davidson’s friend Dave Sirus, features Davidson as Scott, a likable twentysomething pothead who still lives at home on Staten Island with his mother (Tomei), and is still struggling with the death of his firefighter dad when Scott was just seven years old. Here, rather than an aspiring comedian, Scott wants to be a professional tattoo artist, but he has no desire to leave his mom’s house or Staten Island — which he describes as “the only place that New Jersey looks down on.”

(In real life, Davidson’s firefighter father died on 9/11. And he does still live with his mother on Staten Island.)

Call it “extended adolescence” if you will, but pot-infused arrested development is a common trait of many Apatow films (as is a length that is 10–15 minutes too long, which this one is, too). So on that level, KOSI feels somewhat derivative of the writer/director’s other films (Trainwreck, Knocked Up, etc). Here, though, in a nice change of pace, it’s not always played for laughs. KOSI is a true dramedy, and it includes some decent low-key laughs. But the film is more drama than comedy, with some serious emotional beats mixed in, sort of like Apatow’s less successful Funny People was 11 years ago.

Davidson is generally up to the task. No doubt it’s the lived-in nature of the material, and the fact that he’s not playing a character as much as he’s sharing a version of his own story. But as a perpetual screw-up who is continually the butt of the jokes among his friends, Davidson creeps up on you — in a good way — and wins you over. It will be interesting to see if he can play actual characters, and not just variations on his own personality. For now, though, he’s a compelling and engaging presence on screen.

And it’s worth noting that the ensemble around him is solid: Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley (The Morning Show), Steve Buscemi, and Pamela Adlon (Better Things) all leave strong impressions.

Given its story of dealing with loss and finding comfort in your community, KOSI may actually be timely. But as a story of finally growing up, and processing your issues, it’s both familiar and frustrating at the same time.

king of Staten Island scenePart of that may be because Apatow is bucking expectations here. For starters, KOSI is not a raucous comedy like others of his films are. And that’s fine, of course. But when he includes scenes like the very raw cold open, where Scott is driving on the highway and does something reckless that almost gets himself and others killed, the director seems to indicate that he was tempted to make a different, darker, more raw movie than he actually did.

(A similar thing can be said, in the opposite direction, about a sing-a-long scene in a bar scored to The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight.” Enjoyable, yes. But out of place.)

Nevertheless, KOSI is an easygoing film that is often unexpectedly charming and life-affirming. It tells a personal story in an honest way that shows characters processing actual pain. To that end, as in Davidson’s real-life comedy, humor is used here as a defense mechanism that often reveals the actual humanity of the characters and all they’re grappling with.

While not worth the full $20 on-demand price, KOSI is a film that’s worth seeing that can be easily enjoyed at home while we wait for movie theaters to reopen and be safe to return to again.

I’m giving it a B.

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