Judd Apatow will probably be seen better by posterity than he has been in his own time, looking more and more like a displaced Hal Ashby in retrospect, as his bromances and romantic comedies of the 2000s settle into the realm of cinematic history. In that sense, The King of Staten Island is late work, a more mature and meditative reflection about his legacy as a director that, as the title suggests, harkens back to the misfit films of the 1970s – studies of difficult young men as they struggle to come of age. At the same time, however, this is Pete Davidson’s first sustained introduction to the big screen after a rapid rise on Saturday Night Live and other comedy television appearances. Davidson co-wrote the screenplay with Apatow and Dave Sirius, and it’s based roughly on his own life, so there’s a strong sense of a shared vision here – Davidson bringing his story to the world, and Apatow using it as a late career riff on the stories he has already told. Perhaps that’s why The King of Staten Island has such a dynamic sense of pace and momentum – enough to sustain it through two and a quarter hours – full of keenly observed details that add up to a muted and mellowed bromance vibe that’s brilliant at evoking the rapport between men in a natural, unforced way.
For the most part this is a character study rather than a story – or works best when it’s a character study – as Davidson more or less plays himself in the guise of Scott Carlin, a Staten Island twenty-something whose father died when he was young in a firefighting accident. Davidson’s father died in the same way, but the most dramatic fact about his death – that it occurred when battling the blazes of 9/11 – is tactfully left out of The King of Staten Island, which seems keen to avoid sensationalizing this part of Davidson’s back story too much, even if it does inevitably factor into the way that Staten Island and Manhattan are configured over the course of the film. As the film opens, Scott’s sister, Claire, played by Maude Apatow, is heading off for college, leaving Scott along with his mother Margie, played by Marisa Tomei in yet another of her timeless roles. They’re not alone for long, however, since Scott inadvertently brings a new man into their lives – Ray Bishop, Bill Burr, who initially turns up at the Carlin household to berate Scott for giving his ten-year-old son a tattoo, but ends up dating Margie. The relationship isn’t without its complications, for all three parties, and the third act of the film follows Scott and Ray as they both move out of Margie’s house and shack up at the local fire station where Ray works, which is manned by “Papa,” played quietly by Steve Buscemi in one of the best roles of his career – or at least the role that most eloquently captures his range, since this blue-collar everyman is light years from his normal nerviness.
While that might sound like a lot of plot detail, most of these events occur at the start or the end of the film, leaving the bulk of the running time to luxuriate in Scott’s rapport with his circle of friends as they drift and weave through the suburbs of Staten Island. There’s a wonderful contrast between this languorous pace and Scott’s manic ADHD tendencies, which together give the film an awry and offbeat atmosphere – diffuse but never slow, jagged but never hyperactive. Those contrasts also sustain Apatow and Davidson’s depiction of Staten Island, which always seems poised between the reflexive complacency of suburbia and its proximity to the bright lights of Manhattan. As with precursors like Saturday Night Fever and Working Girl, Staten Island is here associated with downward mobility, and with the fear of not achieving proper whiteness, but The King of Staten Island differs from those films in its willingness to embrace this off-whiteness, and the bask in this weird glitchy calm, which in Davidson’s hands almost becomes a form of drug use, or coterminous with drug use. The ghosts of Wu-Tang, in particular, infuse everything he does, from his eccentric gangsta lexicon, to his plethora of tattoos, to his Ghostface Killah T-shirt, but he never seems to be appropriating them per se – just drawing on their own Staten Island backdrop, their own streets of Shaolin, as he makes his way around a suburbia they’ve mythologized so effectively.
Similarly, Scott himself is fine being housebound, without a job, and without any college prospects, as is the film itself, which mellows and lingers in the slacked-out vibe of being at home, or being out, or being anywhere other than work or college on a week day. Only a few scenes are directly lit by sunlight, and these tend to draw Scott’s downward mobility into sharp relief – such as his sister’s graduation party – with Apatow gravitating towards dim, downbeat and dank spaces during daylight hours, typically hazed over with hours of weed or gaming. When they focus exclusively on Scott and his friends, the few outdoor scenes take us through one scene of Staten Island desuetude after another, but these are less class-specific than might be expected, as Apatow evokes a general ebb, a lack of “any flow of people” that permeates the entire island regardless of socioeconomic bracket. It’s notable that Scott’s main romantic interest, Kelsey, played by Bel Powley, is a town planner who longs to gentrify Staten Island by taking advantage of its good views, cheap property and proximity to city. In effect, Scott’s ambivalent relationship to Staten Island is encapsulated in his ambivalent relation to Bel, since while they start out together, we learn that he is impotent with her, while she quickly drifts away for the majority of the film before they meet by chance on the Staten Island Ferry in the very last scene, where he accompanies her to a big job interview.
The film then ends with an equally ambivalent moment – Scott waiting outside for Bel to return, and for them to both return to Staten Island – while gazing up at the buildings outside in curiosity. We never learn whether Bel gets the job, whether she realizes her dream of remaking Staten Island in the image of Manhattan, or whether Scott ever moves to Manhattan – whether he even wants to – which again makes this different from Saturday Night Fever and Working Girl, which at least feature extended Manhattan scenes, even if they eventually conceded the inescapable pull of Richmond County. Of course, these films were all set before 9/11, and typically focused on the World Trade Centre as the first sight the camera alighted upon when staring at Manhattan from Staten Island, effectively using the Twin Towers to summarise all the yearning for upward mobility and conspicuous whiteness that both those films embodied. While Apatow includes similar shots from the northern shore of Staten Island, the World Trade Centre no longer exists as wondrous hook – and, even more dramatically, the space left by the Twin Towers serves as a reminder of Davidson’s own traumatic past. Interestingly, The King of Staten Island doesn’t exactly how Scott’s father died, leaving a 9/11 angle open, but never quite articulating it, leaving its implications to linger in the thwarted upward mobility of this Staten Island-Manhattan gaze without the Twin Towers.
In the end, then, Apatow and Davidson capture something beyond the particular relation between Staten Island and Manhattan – or use that relation to gesture towards a broader crisis of upward mobility in the lower middle class and working class in America today. Even if Saturday Night Fever and Working Girl couldn’t provide a solution, they could provide an aspiration, in the form of that sublime Staten Island-to-Manhattan gaze that is here equated with the foreclosed futures of 9/11 in the most traumatic way. The third act of The King of Staten Island tries to come to terms with that fact, growing quieter and more hushed as Scott and Ray settle into a surrogate father-son relationship while living at the police station, where they both try to process a great schism in American masculinity in the wake of September 11. This is, in the end, the schism that Apatow’s bromances were trying to address in the more immediate aftermath of the Twin Towers collapse, so it’s quite powerful to see him periodising it in this more mellow register, easily one of the best films and scripts of his career.