Magazine July 6, 2020, Issue

The King of Staten Island Is a Return to Judd Apatow’s Comfort Zone

Pete Davidson in The King of Staten Island (Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures)

For about 15 years American comedy lived in the age of Judd Apatow. The era began in 1999 with Freaks and Geeks, his short-lived high-school show that launched a cluster of younger actors toward stardom; it took off with the success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin in 2005; and it arguably finished up with the launch of Lena Dunham’s Girls, in 2012, an Apatow-produced show that took his formula and themes (sexual frankness, arrested development) in a darker and more radical direction.

In that span Apatow himself made only two and a half good movies — the triumphant Virgin, the overpraised Knocked Up, and the underrated comedy-drama Funny People. But his influence was everywhere: As a producer, star-maker, and influencer he touched a wide range of comedies, a host of (mostly male) careers.

Now that world seems unimaginably distant. A long time ago in these pages I described Apatow’s work as socially conservative raunch, which probably slightly overstated his conservatism (a vice of reactionaries trying to stake pop-culture claims) but mostly seems dead-on. He made movies that were filled with pot and porn and promiscuity but that ultimately told a somewhat traditionalist story about what all those things signified: They were obstacles, for men, to the kind of growing up that only women who were slightly too good for them could inspire. Without overt scolding, Apatow’s movies treated adultery and abortion judgmentally, made a cautious case for chastity, and presented masculinity not as something toxic but as a force easily sidetracked into childishness, capable of redemption by a man’s simply growing up.

I think Apatow may have sensed that this kind of storytelling didn’t really fit the direction of the culture in the later 2010s — that it was too conventional in its gender stereotypes, too old-fashioned in its view of the natural relationship between the sexes. (It’s not a coincidence that both gross-out and romantic comedies have gone into eclipse as political correctness has become more rigorous and gender essentialism more harshly judged.)

His last effort, 2015’s Trainwreck, seemed like an attempt to update the formula for the changing times: It was basically an Apatow movie with the sexes reversed, an early example of the switched-sexes remakes common to our moment, with Amy Schumer in the messy, can’t-grow-up role and a straitlaced Bill Hader as the man who changes her. It also wasn’t as good as early Apatow, and we’ve waited five years to see where he would go next.

The answer is back into his comfort zone, male arrested development, but a little bit away from the dangerous territory of the differences between the sexes. In The King of Staten Island, he has followed the example of Funny People and cast a comedian as a version of himself: In this case, it’s Pete Davidson, the gangly, heavily tattooed, haunted-looking Saturday Night Live star famous for dating Ariana Grande and (among politicos) for mocking Representative Dan Crenshaw’s eyepatch and then inviting him on the show.

He’s also famous for his tragic background and mental-health struggles; his dad was a New York City firefighter who died on 9/11, and Davidson has been open about his own bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts. Apatow’s movie has him playing a character with that basic profile, but without the celebrity element: Davidson’s Scott is a 24-year-old who lost his firefighter dad in a more ordinary fire and nurses aspirations of becoming a tattoo artist. At the moment, though, he’s just drifting — living with his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), having sex with a friend, Kelsey (Bel Powley), who wants more out of the relationship, smoking dope with a gaggle of friends, and struggling with both depression and the numbing side effects of antidepressants.

“Drifting” is also a good word for the plot of the movie, which is shaggy and anecdotal, adding and dropping subplots and minor characters, and dragging on for more than two hours without ever achieving anything like urgency. This is not entirely a critique: The central question in the story is whether a grumpy divorced firefighter played by the stand-up comic Bill Burr, who dates Margie and clashes with Scott, can become the surrogate father that the protagonist so obviously needs, and the fact that their story unfolds in a bumpy, fits-and-starts way lends the movie a certain useful realism.

What The King of Staten Island lacks is a similar sense of the ups and downs of mental illness. Davidson is in motormouth comic mode throughout, sometimes chattering happily and sometimes angrily, but never seeming genuinely down, depressed, apathetic, lethargic. The character tells us about that side of his condition, but the actor doesn’t show us; we see him mad and caustic but never in the deepest dark, the heaviest quicksand. This means the viewer isn’t inspired to worry about him quite the way the other characters on screen do, and the story has more of a low-stakes, failure-to-launch vibe than its script seems to intend.

It’s possible that Davidson didn’t feel comfortable going too far into the darkness as an actor because he’s too familiar with darkness as a human being. I wouldn’t blame him if that were the case. But the movie needs more clarity about its own stakes. Apatow seems as if he’s feeling his way cautiously, which may be the right move given the fraught cultural context, but his caution leaves his story caught between comedy and drama — disappointingly short of the synthesis that he found ten years ago in Funny People, but hasn’t managed since.

This article appears as “Arrested Development” in the July 6, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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