The first thing Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) does in The King of Staten Island is slam on the brakes. He’s hurtling down the highway, eyes closed, tempting fate, when he cracks his eyelids and sees there’s already a wreck ahead. He narrowly skids around it, clipping a few other cars as he does, but he doesn’t stop to inspect the damage. He just keeps driving away, saying “I’m sorry” to the rearview mirror as he steps on the gas.
Judd Apatow’s movies never need to apply the brakes, because they rarely build up any kind of speed. The scene that follows King’s opening finds him immediately back on familiar hangout-movie turf, as Scott and his buddies kick it in a basement in the titular borough. The rapport between them is so comfortable and lifelike that it feels like settling into a well-worn sofa, and the tenderness with which they bust each other’s balls sets the tone for a story about men struggling to express their feelings in any other way. Like Davidson himself, Scott has been rocked since childhood by the death of his father, a New York firefighter, on the job. (The movie changes the site of death from the World Trade Center to an ordinary fire, although the timing remains close enough that you’re perhaps deliberately allowed to forget which is which.) Although it’s been 17 years, neither Scott nor his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), have really moved on, and Scott’s friends know the tragedy is always with him. But rather than tiptoe around the subject, they smash right into it, cracking morbid jokes—“Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Not your dad!”—to take the edge off the pain.
As Apatow’s career as a feature film director has flourished, his characters have drifted steadily upward in social class: the title character of The 40-Year-Old Virgin worked in an electronics store; the protagonist of Trainwreck wrote for a glossy men’s magazine. The King of Staten Island reverses that trend, setting itself squarely among the borough’s working-class population, which could have been a risky proposition. Apatow’s projects, like This Is 40 and Funny People, take place in a cocoon of often unreflective privilege (although perhaps not as unreflective as the world of the Apatow-produced Girls), and though it’s felt for a while like that world was in need of a shakeup, taking the ferry over from lower Manhattan could have felt like a quick fix, an opportunity to fall back on Hollywood clichés about what working people are really like. Instead, working from a script he co-wrote with Davidson and Saturday Night Live writer Dave Sirus, he’s produced a movie whose textures are so beautifully rendered you don’t much mind the fact that you’re not going anywhere. It helps that the movie fills out much of its cast with stand-up comedians who don’t have the rhythms of polished actors, with a few ringers whose backgrounds make them perfect for their parts. (Honestly, how has it taken this long for Steve Buscemi to play a fireman?) Saddled with a put-on outer-boroughs accent, Bel Powley, as Scott’s sort-of girlfriend, sometimes seems like she’s doing an impression rather than giving a performance, but hers are some of the movie’s only false notes.
For all the specifics of his character makeup—in addition to the dead father, Scott has depression, ADD, and Crohn’s, plus an implied substance abuse problem to go along with them—King of Staten Island’s protagonist is yet another Apatovian manchild, so arrested that he can’t handle it when his mother starts dating after 17 years of celibate widowhood. (It is hard, watching some of their confrontations, not to contemplate an alternate version of the story in which she just gives him a smack and tells him to get over it.) He’s a deeply frustrating character, and it would take an actor more expressive than Davidson to convey just how heavy a weight he’s carrying around at all times. It helps if you bring an awareness of Davidson’s real-life struggles with addiction and mental health to the movie, but Apatow isn’t a director who can get under his actors’ skin. He just shows you his characters’ surfaces, and the contortions they make to prevent anyone from looking beneath them.
It’s different for the women in Scott’s life, or really the great actresses who play them, since the script doesn’t give them much more to do than scold him or beg him for emotional crumbs. There’s no hint of condescension in the way Tomei plays Margie, which is to say this isn’t Allison Janney slipping on a hard-edged accent and a frazzled wig. As a school nurse who also works shifts in an emergency room, she carries herself with a permanent weariness and a total lack of self-pity, less prideful than it is matter-of-fact. Pamela Adlon only has a few scenes as the ex-wife of Margie’s new boyfriend (played by the Boston-accented, thick-mustached Bill Burr), but she invests them with a sense of a woman who lives far beyond the borders of this movie’s frame—and does it with subtle but laser-guided comic timing. At one point she’s ranting about what a bum her ex is—a liar, a gambler, an absolute good-for-nothing—and then slips into a soft-voiced reverie that just happens to be about the size of his penis. I wished the movie could be about them instead. (Maybe just stream Adlon’s Better Things after you’re done.)
Like a lot of the movies bypassing theaters this summer, The King of Staten Island feels right at home in your home. It has a loping, lowkey charm and doesn’t require too much of your attention, and the plot is predictable enough that you could miss substantial chunks of it and not lose your way. You’re in the passenger seat, and it’s a nice ride as long as you don’t care where you’re going. At least, this time, Apatow opted for a change of scenery.