Monday 21 December 2020

On demand: "The King of Staten Island"

Judd Apatow's first feature in five years is, on one level, a favour for a friend. The friend is Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson, still best known in the UK for being pop princess Ariana Grande's ex. The King of Staten Island is a pretty sweet gig for a twentysomething comedian to have landed, all told: Apatow hands Davidson a two-hour showcase in which he gets to play a version of himself, acting his way past issues he's already processed in reality. His Scott, another of Apatow's beleaguered dudes trying to navigate a moment and grow, is introduced contemplating vehicular suicide; he's driving home to a household left lopsided by the death of his firefighter father, a tragedy that goes underdiscussed by mom Margie (Marisa Tomei), and which we'll witness being worked through in this director's recognisably lackadaisical house style. In the meantime, our boy busies himself giving friends and passing children crappy tattoos, and watching everybody move on but him. In its basics, the movie is Smalltown Drama 101, but Apatow and Davidson give it a little more specificity - they make it about this kid, and this town; as Scott observes, Staten Island may be the only place New Jersey looks down upon - while offering the reassurance that this particular kid will grow up to be well-recompensed by network TV, and have the foremost female popstars of his age throw themselves at his feet. The punchline is this: sometimes it all works out, which in certain cases is pretty funny.

As introductions to a performer go, King really isn't bad: Davidson proves as likable an Apatow lead as Steve Carell, Seth Rogen or Paul Rudd. For all Scott's waywardness, we know this performer has a keen mind, because although he has tattoos on every other inch of his body (his torso is as extravagantly detailed as the ceilings of certain Gothic cathedrals), he's left his incredibly expressive face untouched. It's a face that could actually have been drawn by a tattooist: big eyes, lips like a Rolling Stones album cover, at once flappy and lascivious. He has two advantages as a funny person: one, he looks funny - something like a young Steve Buscemi, which gets confusing when the actual Buscemi shows up in the movie - and two, he sounds funny, older than his 26 years, but no wiser in what he's saying. (When his sensible, college-bound sister Claire (Maude Apatow) tells him he has to get his shit together as time passes very quickly, Scott retorts "That's why I smoke weed: it slows it all down".) What's interesting about the character he's arrived at with Apatow is that Scott appears properly messed up by the loss of his father at a formative moment, more so than the Carell character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin was messed up by the absence of human contact, more so than the Sandler character in Funny People was messed up by fame (which at least afforded him the chance to be miserable in a nice house). Maybe it's Davidson's own input, as someone who experienced this loss firsthand, but the writing probes deeper than the Apatow par. Scott's resentment at ma taking in a new man from the same firehouse (stand-up Bill Burr) goes beyond Step Brothers-like comic rivalry, and pushes our protagonist into positions that are at first brattily funny, then weird, then sour. An hour into The King of Staten Island, and the stakes are clear: it's grow up or die.

The question then becomes whether Apatow's arrhythmic direction is a help (fitting, as it does, Scott's haphazard development) or a hindrance to overall enjoyment. Fifteen years after transferring from TV to the big screen, Apatow's strengths and weaknesses have become familiar: he loves situations, but drags his feet like a recalcitrant teenager whenever it comes to plot. Here again, scenes get smushed up against one another without much in the way of finesse; montages are reached for in a desperate effort to hurry matters along; and still the whole thing clocks in over 130 minutes. I can hear the Apatow defence already: hey, it's value-for-money. But he's something like Aaron Sorkin with dick jokes: a supremely gifted screenwriter who as a director hasn't quite found images to match the fluency of his words. (And he's had the collaborators! Funny People saw Janusz Kaminski flooding Apatow's boxy frames with California sunshine; King's shot by Paul Thomas Anderson regular Robert Elswit, who can't do much with Staten Island as a location, and seems wasted lining up endless close-ups and two-shots.) There are tricky tonal shifts to navigate here, too, and Apatow tends to stumble through them, as if looking round for the next ad break. One of Scott's running mates is shot and injured during a robbery, and simply disappears from the movie; and I'm not sure that Scott setting about his bedroom with a baseball bat is as funny as the movie seems to frame it. It's far harder to make comedy about broken homes, and the violence lurking within them, than it is about sex or showbusiness.

What pulled me through finally was the movie's fond, forgiving spirit. He may not care unduly about images, but Apatow likes people, particularly messed-up, bashed about, lived-in, salty, funny people. (Remember that he spent his adolescence haring about L.A. tape-recording the recollections of his comedy heroes.) He's still making hangout movies, bottom line, and those movies are never more relaxed or fun than when a bunch of folks are sat around shooting the shit, because then Apatow doesn't really have to think about story. (This, of course, is where he gets in trouble with story.) There are some lovely scenes here between Davidson and Bel Powley (another funny face, cast as Scott's on-off girlfriend Kelsey), and between Davidson and the great Pamela Adlon (as the Burr character's ex), in which Scott lets down his defences and shows us the man he could become - sweet and nurturing, naive in the best way. There are some even better scenes over at the firehouse, where our gangling delinquent of a hero is honed and tested, sometimes roasted, by the likes of Buscemi, Domenick Lombardozzi and American Vandal's Jimmy Tatro. That location is the movie, much as the comedy club was Funny People; it's just Apatow arrives there very late on, after struggling to get through a whole lot of loose ends. I suspect this production didn't have deleted scenes so much as handfuls of subplots, yanked out after the first cut came in longer than Andrei Rublev, but even the rougher edges left behind serve as evidence of a prevailing human touch. In an era of wipeclean, machine-tooled PG-13 entertainments assembled by interchangeably anonymous company men, there really aren't many films released by major studios that bear many traces of that.

The King of Staten Island is now streaming via Prime Video.

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