The thing to know going into The King of Staten Island, co-written by Judd Apatow, Dave Sirus and Pete Davidson, is that Davidson’s father was a fireman who lost his life in the call of duty (at the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, in fact).
The father of Scott Carlin, the character Davidson plays in this movie, also lost his life in the line of duty, so it’s fair to say there’s probably an autobiographical element in this semi-comic look at a life held in arrested development by family trauma.
If you don’t know Davidson, he’s the guy with the slappable face from Saturday Night Live, a slappability put to good use in this film about a much tattooed, tranked-up slob about town who’s all mouth and no trousers (unless you count joggers), full of plans going nowhere, like the one to open a “tattoo restaurant”. But who wants to eat while they’re being tattooed, points out Scott’s much smarter and sick-of-this-crap sister, Claire (Maude Apatow, daughter of Judd).
So, a life of busy going nowhere except to somewhere he can hang out with his stoner mates, an aimless life brought to a shuddering halt when Scott’s mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) starts seeing Ray (Bill Burr), a firefighter with a big moustache that is his character sketched in bristles, who is absolutely not intimidated by the sort of wiseass stoner bullshit that is Scott’s speciality.
The irrestistible-force-meets-immovable-object dynamic now established, these two characters lock horns, in the gentle way that men do when they’re hostile but still playing at being peaceable, walking around each other slightly stiff legged but smiling, grimacing maybe. Ray, in an attempt to get Scott to do something, anything, forces him to walk his kids to school. Scott counters by trying to neutralise Ray when he realises the firefighter might be about to propose to his mother… and that she might accept.
The out-and-out comedy of Apatow’s early films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up soon gave way to something more muted, less needily craving laughs, like This Is 40, and that’s what we get here, a semi-comic drama that bumbles along quite nicely until it slightly overreaches emotionally. After Scott’s mother kicks both men out of her house for being… well, men, the two of them end up bunking down together at the firehouse, where mawkishness of the “I love you, man” variety starts to intrude as Ray and Scott learn more about each other, and Scott learns more about his dad’s bravery as a firefighter. It’s heartfelt, but a touch heavy-handed.
As an SNL-derived film (co-writer Sirus is an SNL writer) it ducks the charge of being a sketch stretched beyond its limits, which makes a change, but it’s caught bang to rights by another SNL tendency – nodding improv syndrome, when stumped actors’ brains whirr but nothing’s really happening downstairs in the mouth department.
Great cast. Bel Powley, good in everything, alongside the already mentioned Maude Apatow (also very good) and the needs-no-introduction Marisa Tomei. Plus Moises Arias, Lou Wilson and Ricky Velez, nailing it as part of Scott’s stoner crew, and a bizarre cameo by Steve Buscemi, who must have just been wandering by the lot that day, so brief and pointless is his appearance (lovely though it always is to see him, I hasten to add). And mention must be made of Alexis Rae Forlenza and Luke David Blumm, as the kids of Ray, a delightful pair whose characters are quietly instrumental in arresting Scott’s arrested development.
Nice film. Not the greatest accolade in the history of cinema, admittedly. Perhaps best watched on one of those Wednesday evenings in a long working week when feelgood (eventually) is what’s required.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021