Going into this film there’s an assumption on what to expect; I mean, it’s a film about Pete Davidson (an SNL comedian) by renowned comedy director Judd Apatow. Now, if there’s one thing that surprised me about this biopic; it was that it didn’t feel, look, or pace anything like a typical Judd Apatow flick. The King of Staten Island is a mostly serious, mostly grounded, and veeeery long drama film directed by, you guessed it, Judd Apatow. It follows the loose telling of a 24 year old Pete Davidson, as his issues with dealing with the loss of his father arrive at a boiling point. Don’t expect to hear Seth Rogan’s iconic laugh here, this ain’t your typical Apatow flick.
What specifically took me by surprise was that Apatow’s films almost never contain this degree of broody emotiveness; with history as a witness, it is apparent that Apatow stands more as an expert on crude humor and slapstick comedy — examples being Knocked Up (2007) and The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005). With that in mind, it’s surprising to see that an origin story of a comedian didn’t quite have a steady stream of humor at all; truthfully The King of Staten Island is a more mellow and dramatic experience than it is an excitable or erratic one.
It has been noted in interviews that Appatow humbly admits he’s not quite the comedic powerhouse as Hollywood leads many into believing; he instead capitalizes on comedic talent to make his films as fun and as goofy as possible — most notoriously through the use of improvised comedy. It does in some form sting a little to not receive even a fraction of the comedic moments you’d see in Apatow’s earlier comedies in here — but alas, the result of this subdued comedy by no means spells disaster.
“Comedian who is angry at the world lashes out”
If you were to read that synopsis without any context you’d think you’re about to watch Joker (2019) – thankfully Pete Davidson isn’t quite that psychotic throughout this mellowed drama. Of course there’s a little more to this film than it just being the tale of a sad boy comedian. There are genuine attempts here to touch on trauma and loss; if anything, there’s a focus on how it how it affects you as an adult, and how it can even poison your life.
Much like most of Apatow’s stories and especially like his last major comedy Trainwreck (2015), his films generally follow the theme of growing up as an already grown-ass adult. Whether it’s losing your virginity, becoming a father, or getting your shit together; Apatow has a knack for this kind of coming-of-any-age type drama structure, and it works, just so long as there’s healthy comedy to balance it all out (which admittedly was lacking here).
Pete Davidson himself provides a performance that is nothing short of… well, himself. He shows all the ups and downs of who he is, from the weak to the strong, from the good to the bad and he’s the first person in the room to make fun of himself – this is evident in both the film itself and his real life standup. The supporting roles by Marrissa Tomei and Bill Burr are vital to this film too, as this is as much a film about getting your shit together as it is about family. Bill Burr in particular adds a surprising touch of emotion that I didn’t expect and perhaps provides the films most resonant performance.
In terms of its visuals, Staten Island may not be remarkable, but Apatow’s dedication to shooting this biopic on 35mm film certainly is. While comedies generally don’t get the most out of the use of this filming format, a biopic does, as the autobiographical nature of it adds a layer of humanism and a “record keeping” tone to the whole affair. There are very few interesting shots in this film, which is either intentional so as to keep the narrative focused or is perhaps just an example that Apatow has chosen not to evolve this particular skillset of his.
In many ways Apatow shares his new genre-changing likeness to comedic writer-director Adam Mckay. Mckay can certainly do drama but with Apatow, his films feel a little uncertain. While some tenderness of its emotional aspirations remain intact — The King of Staten Island ultimately feels like one very long standup joke that falls a little short at the punchline. Entertaining nonetheless.