Film & TV

The King of Staten Island: Autobiography of an American Antifa Brat

Pete Davidson and Steve Buscemi in The King of Staten Island (Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures)
Apatow panders to and pities a new type of privileged hipster sloth.

Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island, a semi-biopic starring Saturday Night Live comedian and celebrity screw-up Pete Davidson, never gets its act together. As in all Apatow products, from TV’s Freaks and Geeks to the movies Knocked Up and Trainwreck, the main character’s underlying social and psychological issues are avoided. Apatow’s Gen X-, Y-, and Z-indulgent comedy specializes in a particular kind of identity politics — trash narcissism.

Pale, skinny, pop-eyed Davidson, flaunting his real-life Illustrated Man body tattoos, meanders through the arrested-adolescent frustrations of his alter-ego Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old from Staten Island’s working-class enclave who still lives with his widowed mother (Marisa Tomei). He pouts, “I need that safety net!” but talks about opening a tattoo parlor/restaurant — an idea that recalls Adam Sandler’s zaniness minus the whimsy. He mostly smokes pot with his ne’er-do-well friends who play video games and idly plan to rob a pharmacy. Scott/Davidson’s lifestyle, scoffing at other people’s ambition, resenting his sister’s college choice and his mother’s attempt at middle-aged dating, which causes Oedipal angst, isn’t a new form of rebellion but a new form of privilege.

Apatow gets the class and generational issues all wrong. His script (co-written with Davidson and Dave Sirus) plays up Scott’s pathos; perpetually mourning the death of his firefighter father repeats the same biographical details that Davidson exploits in his stand-up routines. Scott is a non-characterization. His personality is neither “hip” nor “dope.” He’s a sketch-comedy geek derived from contemporary celebrity worship and given the same two-hour-plus treatment as Apatow’s failed Adam Sandler epic Funny People. Scott’s plight is funny only to people who congratulate themselves for emulating the sarcasm of the class they’re not in — thus understanding their own lives less.

Scott/Davidson is not alienated but a new kind of hipster sloth; he represents a type that grows up envying showbiz privilege. Apatow’s glib narrative both sneers at and pities this working-class phenomenon, oblivious to the deep-seated social unease that defines America’s lost generation that has now taken to the streets. Their crisis is beyond Apatow’s basic interest in selling vulgar, bad-taste humor. (“You know I’m a f***in’ bum, right?” Scott whines to his mother.) Just as Freak and Geeks was also a betrayal of American working-class roots, these bridge-and-tunnel adult tough guys and blunt, gum-smacking women (“we’re the only place New Jersey looks down on”) recall the outrageous white stereotypes of big-haired Staten Island skanks in Mike Nichols’s phony Working Girl.

These are Deplorables, low-class figures Apatow panders to — and thinks so little of that the best he can do is be a little maudlin (thanks to Marisa Tomei’s multileveled charm). That’s all that’s left, given Apatow’s moral bankruptcy. The film’s single outright discussion of class proposes a list of college-educated scoundrels (Bill Cosby, Ted Bundy, the Unabomber, Trump), all easy targets of Hollywood Left hostility, which Apatow himself has expressed. Yet the one Obama joke is quite revealing: Scott’s clumsy tattoo work draws Obama’s face wrong — a tattoo with crossed eyes. It’s as if Obama’s image — his aura — can no longer be perceived or replicated accurately.

Snarky Apatow may have stumbled upon the essence of post-Obama dread. That freakish tattoo symbolizes the national Ferguson effect of incapacity and hopeless futility all over again, but this time as experienced by demoralized working-class whites who were also neglected by the Obama reign.

Thanks to Black Lives Matter fever, we can observe The King of Staten Island and call out Apatow and Scott/Davidson’s Gen-Y petulance as part of white showbiz privilege. The themes of male infantilization and boys without fathers that were deep and powerful in John Singleton’s urban-ghetto drama Baby Boy become a train wreck when hit by Apatow’s comedy shtick and brazen insensitivity. The film lacks a single credible emotion, not even Scott’s threatening to harm himself, or his smart-aleck attack on a group of firefighters through jokey insinuations about death. (If this is Apatow’s homage to Adam Sandler’s fireman’s-brotherhood classic I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, no thanks.)

Scott’s outcast demeanor, a cross between a drug addict and an emaciated puppy, makes him look like a perfect Antifa candidate — a lost youth whose immature self-hatred and lack of responsibility leads him to harm everyone around him. Apatow gets close to something credible about Scott’s ingratitude. Yet — just like Scott’s imprecise Obama tattoo — he refuses to recognize the spiritual crisis of Millennial punks. That’s because Apatow is running a mainstream-media game — playing both sides against the middle, kowtowing to clueless Boomers while sucking up to the new breed of American brat. If Apatow had an artist’s perception, this movie would openly scrutinize an Antifa brat. Because Apatow and Davidson don’t go there, their semi-biopic is worthless.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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