Through luck and due diligence, Judd Apatow has become the comedy impresario of today. By drafting on star power and putting actors in places to succeed, he has, in turn, found success. Apatow’s latest, The King of Staten Island, is shaped the same way. Only it lacks Seth Rogen’s affability, Adam Sandler’s against-type slumming, or even Amy Schumer’s pratfalls. Instead, Apatow wants us to buy into the idea of Pete Davidson, a tough sell even for someone with his track record.
As per Apatow tradition, The King of Staten Island centres on a lovable loser. Scott Carlin (Davidson) is a layabout with no future, a loose grip on the present, and a past shrouded in pain. Drawing from Davidson’s real life, Scott’s father was a firefighter who died in action. What we see then is a late-period coming-of-age story, with Scott discovering himself and the people around him—including his father—as he seeks to reclaim his life. This is an easy narrative for Apatow, who is able to stock the film with Marisa Tomei as Scott’s mother, Bill Burr as her new suitor, and, most effectively, Steve Buscemi (himself a former firefighter) as a fire hall chief. All involved bring a professional believability to the film, that lived-in Staten Island texture paramount. Meanwhile, as a true product of the borough, Davidson has the bona fides to be at the centre of this film—he just so clearly lacks the acting chops. While his Scott is given everything needed for a rich character study, Davidson is rarely able to break through the surface of the film.
Rather than work with Davidson’s limitations, however, Apatow shapes The King of Staten Island to match himself instead, taking what should be a satisfying story and dragging it out over two meandering hours. In this, Apatow’s dramatic and comedic inclinations feel lazy, rote, and more than a little sloppy. We’re left waiting for something singular, for that Apatow touch to capture what makes his chosen star (and him) supposedly so special—but that moment never quite arrives.