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The King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island

"and as he surveyed all before him, he wept, for there were no
worlds left to conquer"

dir: Judd Apatow

2020

These films, from Judd Apatow, about men (almost exclusively men, except for Trainwreck, where the emotionally immature main character was a woman), very immature men, straining to grow over the course of the movie in order to be better people and be worthy of some other character’s love, are right up my alley. Sure, it indicates that Apatow never really wants to do anything that different from what he’s done before, but who are we to complain in these difficult times?

I mean, the value of entertainment cannot be understated given what's going on in the world at the moment. Thank Christ, the Buddha and maybe Satan as well that all these productions were waiting in the wings, waiting for a docile and compliant and famished audience to hoover down, like so many Twisties from a Party Size bag.

Unlike the other flicks, one could argue, this time telling this kind of tale, they are using a doozy of a story, and a doozy of an actor to play the main character. Pete Davidson is notorious for a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with movies or Saturday Night Live, and more to do with his mental health struggles and unapologetic drug use. At least here it is in the service of telling a story that’s not too dissimilar to his actual life.

It's a backhanded way of saying that though the characters in his other flicks, that aren’t the ones about how growing older and having families suck (Funny People, This is 40), might have had issues and hang ups, but not like this guy. He’s always on drugs and is clearly suicidal, and makes terrible choices that any person can see are terrible.

The film starts with Scott (Davidson) driving a car, deciding he doesn’t care if he lives or dies, nearly having a serious accident, but at the last second swerving out of the way because there’s already a car wreck on the road. He hits a couple of cars, yells sorry, but doesn’t really do anything about it.

The main characterisation of Scott is that there is the fundamental absence in his life, being that of his father, which has contributed to his fuckedupedness. It sounds pretty simplistic, doesn’t it? Like, that one thing surely doesn’t explain or excuse the countless terrible things he does here.

But maybe it does. While he has a close relationship with his mum Margie (Marisa Tomei, wonderful as always), not so much with his younger sister (Maude Apatow), who’s too young to remember their dad, and to whom her brother has been nothing but a cold annoyance. With her leaving for college, there’s less keeping this family together other than inertia.

Scott has no ability or inclination to support himself, no education or job prospects, a hankering for drugs, a friend from childhood (Bel Powley) who he has sex with in secret but doesn’t want anyone to know he’s seeing because reasons, and occasional episodes of mania and depression that are these days referred to as bipolar. I think in real life Davidson’s been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and while the flick doesn’t spend too long on medical diagnoses or treatments, there are a lot of jokes / references to legal medication as much as the illegal stuff.

His path is not one of getting the support of doctors, mental health professionals and therapists to support him as he deals with his issues. This is more the kind of flick where someone has to fuck up every way they can until they run out of ways to fuck up, then gradually pull back and see that maybe there’s a better way.

Maybe that would be less true to life, or thought to be less funny. In case it’s not abundantly clear as yet, because there is a genuine attempt to link the main character’s troubles to the death of Davidson’s actual fire fighter dad in 9/11, it’s not really attempting to be as flat out farcical as many of Apatow’s earlier flicks attempted to be. It’s actually striving for, what’s that word I’m thinking of, oh year, pathos.

I can’t say for other people whether it works, but it worked for me. The irritation with the character is the same irritation we might experience with the people in our lives that we love and care about who face similar demons. Of course, there are also people in our lives for whom we don’t have as much goodwill, so mileage will definitely vary.

At one point Scott is hanging out with a bunch of his friends, most of whom are even bigger fuck ups than he is. I forgot to mention, Scott really really wants to be a tattoo artist. He’s not good at it, as is the evidence on most of his friends, and I guess on himself too. A kid rocks up out of nowhere, clearly still in primary school, or I guess what Americans call grade school. Scott elects to give him a free tattoo.

Now, a scene like that, in most other flicks, would probably have ominous music playing on the soundtrack, and it would be used to indicate that the person doing the bad thing is a child abusing monster. Here, I’m trying to think of what the most charitable spin one could put on it, and I’ve got nothing. I think they’re trying to say that Scott isn’t very sensible?

Anyway he tattoos a line on the boy’s shoulder, and naturally it hurts like hell and the boy runs away crying. But Scott is saying stuff like “you wanted a tattoo, you’re getting a tattoo” or that the boy has to not be a pussy because…reasons, I guess. I think, and it’s not that much of a reach, that it’s strongly implying that Scott has a very distorted sense of what a responsible adult male would do in a situation where he is trying to impart values and all that bullshit to a young boy, because, obviously, he didn’t have that in his own life. In that absence he’s cobbled together a bunch of stuff verging over the line of toxic masculinity, and a certain amount of masochism, to form a misplaced idea of what a person should be like, let alone a man, in the contemporary world.

As for what a man is actually meant to be like in the contemporary world, I have no fucking idea, probably even less idea than the character here, but if I’ve got any part of it right, it should be that people try to make a decent effort not to be arseholes to everyone around them. It’s not as complicated as many other philosophies, but what it lacks in complexity it more than makes up for in applicability.

And definitely don’t tattoo kids. It’s ultimately a cheap plot point intended to further the next part of the story, which is that the incensed father of the boy (Bill Burr, with a big bloody handlebar moustache) arrives on Scott’s doorstep berating all and sundry, but lingers long enough to think that Scott’s mum looks like a bit of an all right hot mama.

And adventures ensue. The father figure, Ray, now dating his mom, tries to force him to grow up by doing the stereotypical things jerks who date your mother do in all these kinds of movies, but, you know, it’s for the Kid’s Own Good. Any time I hear anything like “it’s for your own good” or “it’ll do him good to go out into the world and make something of himself” I think, bull fucking shit it will. It’s a convenient fiction people tell themselves to justify being cruel, which is rarely, if ever, justifiable.

Scott’s not going to go down that easily, or at all, from the look of the one or two sex scenes we are privy to, but he does make some tentative stabs at adulting, like a minimum wage job at a cousin’s restaurant where the waiters fight each other for tips at the end of each shift in a very cleaned up version of Fight Club (the running joke is that Scott gets his arse kicked every single time because, after all, he’s so painfully thin he looks like he couldn’t fight a gentle breeze and stay up right). He also resolves to remove this interloper from his mother’s good graces by getting the dirt on him via his ex-wife (Pamela Adlon, phenomenal as always, though of course she’s even better on her show Better Things). The caustic contempt she has for her ex Ray is almost counterbalanced by listening to her wax rhapsodically about his “perfect cock”. Watching Scott squirm through this, but then later on implying his mom is something of a size queen had me laughing so much that I cried.

There has always been an amount of smuttiness in Apatow’s oeuvre, but Davidson is more than up or down for it, as anyone who’s seen any of his standup would know there’s practically nothing he won’t say and nothing he won’t admit to. Again, it’s always within the realm of immaturity and male fixations, but I have to give them some (tentative) props navigating the sexual complexities of later in life relationships, or at least bothering to reckon with the desires, expectations and disappointments of getting into relationships in your 50s and 60s (I have no idea how old the Ray and Margie characters are meant to be, but good luck to them).

It turns out, for all of Ray’s bluster and stoic men be like this, women be like that bullshit, he’s a bit of a fuckup himself, and not for similar reasons to Scott. The big difference is that Ray at least has the camaraderie and support of the firemen and women that he works with, people for whom the phrase “ride or die” is literally applicable. Scott’s resentment of Ray is specific, but he also has a generalised resentment towards firemen in general. His argument is, expounded at a baseball game with the other jerks, that firemen should do the decent thing and not have families, or at least kids, and that way if they die on the job they don’t leave such a gaping wound in the souls of the people they leave behind.

It’s a powerful point, even if it’s unfair, and even if the resentment he’s expressing we would naturally attribute to his (actual) father. But the more time he spends with these jerks, the more they win him over, while also teaching him about the fact that his father was not the saint Scott has believed him to be, that he is enshrined as.

The story forces Scott into a position where everything around him starts changing, and he desperately tries to keep everything as it was, which isn’t what anyone else wants, but change is by its nature painful. We get the feeling that Scott will either start trying to live a more responsible life, or go out in a flaming blaze of glory.

In case it’s not obvious, the title is a bit sarcastic, or maybe a lot sarcastic. Some of the characters lament that Staten Island has nothing going for it, and is even looked down on by New Jersey, that’s how lowly Staten is of the five boroughs. The only good thing to come out of Staten Island is the Wu Tang Clan, and the flick never lets us forget that. But it also, I find it quite comical, never makes a case that Staten somehow possesses some hidden virtues, or that it is actually a decent place to live. If anything, the film goes out of its way to say the best thing you can do if you’re from Staten Island is to leave it. And who am I to argue with that?

Of everyone here, the only person I feel bad for is Bel Powley, as the on again off again pseudo girlfriend. The reasons I even mention it is that by a strange coincidence I watched a movie a few weeks ago called Carrie Pilby, on Netflix, of course. I couldn’t even tell you why I watched it, and I can’t even say that anyone else would have ever heard of it (I had to look it up, I couldn’t remember the name). But it was a delightful and tiny lowkey movie about a very young genius level intelligence woman who has an appalling time connecting with people. And she, using her usual British accent, was great in the role. She’s great here too, but no-one could probably tell you what a Staten Island accent sounds like, and no-one could probably tell her either, which is why her Jersey Shore-almost accent is a bit jarring. She doesn’t have a lot to do in the flick other than be more supportive of Scott than he ever deserves, but eventually settle for not being his secret shag anymore.

What Drama! And high stakes! It sounds like I’m ragging on the flick, and the thing is, I actually found it very enjoyable (for a Saturday night flick, bit sozzled, no kids in the room thanks to a sleepover), far more enjoyable than many other reviewers and film critics seem to think it was. Pete has done himself no favours by being tabloid fodder with an ever increasing array of exotic ex girlfriends (not that it’s his fault, tabloids are going to tabloid no matter what he personally does) and stints in rehab and such. But acting is not easy, and even playing a mutated version of yourself can’t be easy even in a flick that tries to humanise your past and your struggles with various issues. This didn’t feel like a self-indulgent wallow even when the character is doing some appalling stuff. You’re screaming “no, don’t do that” because you should be, because he knows he shouldn’t do it, but does it anyway because fuck it, why not?

The King of Staten Island is not going to serve as a tourist ad for that lamentable borough of little significance, and it’s not going to be Davidson’s calling card into Hollywood, because he’s already there. He’s in a bunch of films coming out (if cinemas ever reopen, which, honestly, doesn’t look like it’s going to be any time soon), including an upcoming Suicide Squad sequel, which would have to be better than the first, and he definitely has a presence and an energy, and I hope he sticks around. Everyone else in the flick also does solid work, and they keep this flick grounded and believable (even when it veers into farce, like with a chemist burglary, which was…not good).

We’re all on a path. He’s on his. Let’s hope he finds his way.

8 times laughing at the bad decisions of others is not only enjoyable, it’s called entertainment out of 10
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“Holy shit, did you get shot?”
- “No, my vape exploded in my pocket, I didn’t stretch before yoga, I was playing tennis, I slipped, what you want me to say?” – Action Jackson for the win – The King of Staten Island.

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