There was a time when American big screen comedy all seemed to funnel through the Judd Apatow prism. The comedy stars of the noughties, from Will Ferrell to Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd, all worked for the super-producer and filmmaker over and over again, delivering foul-mouthed, weed-infused romps that dealt in a very particular brand of humour. In recent years, Apatow has appeared to mellow and become more reflective — a shift that finds its zenith in The King of Staten Island.

Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson is the latest addition to the Apatow school, co-writing and leading this story, which mines his real-life bereavement for deeply personal comedy. Just like protagonist Scott, the actor lost his firefighter dad on the job — specifically on 9/11, in Davidson’s case. Scott has taken the loss badly and is now a directionless slob, which only gets worse when his mother (Marisa Tomei) starts dating another fireman (Bill Burr).

Apatow’s oeuvre has often dealt in the arrested development of 20-something men with childish impulses and Scott is a textbook example of that, doing dreadful tattoos on his friends while smoking pot and watching SpongeBob SquarePants on TV. This isn’t the director reinventing the wheel by any means, but Davidson pushes Scott a step further, imbuing the character’s slovenly gait and rictus grin with a palpable sense of pain.

The King of Staten Island

There’s something of the dark snark of the character that fits Davidson like a glove, with his easy comedic persona a great match for Apatow’s trademark improvisational style. Even when The King of Staten Island‘s freewheeling storytelling and expansive dialogue scenes threatens to become indulgent, Davidson is such a watchable leading man that he drags the thing back to earth.

The somewhat bloated running time — within touching distance of two and a half hours — allows for a delightful array of supporting characters, but the film also doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. Bel Powley and Maude Apatow, as Scott’s on-off girlfriend and sister respectively, flit in and out of the narrative at random, while Marisa Tomei is dragged hither and thither by the necessities of the plot and Scott’s friends — who are mostly absent from the second half, other than an odd criminal subplot — could comfortably be excised entirely.

But there’s such an amiable comic energy to The King of Staten Island that it feels wrong to begrudge it that extra running time. Apatow and Davidson really put the time in to explore Scott’s psyche, whether it’s in his changing relationship with Burr’s character or the way he bonds with the staff of a local fire house, led by an avuncular Steve Buscemi — famously a former firefighter himself, of course.

The King of Staten Island

The same loose approach that leaves the movie overlong and disjointed also gives it a pleasantly relaxed quality — like a friendly hang with buddies rather than an intense slice of drama or a constructed comedy scenario. In many ways, The King of Staten Island thrives in its pandemic-enforced home release. It’s the perfect living room movie — more like an episodic box set binge than a single, contained story.

Davidson, though, is the main takeaway here. The movie is effectively a showcase for his leading man chops and he emerges as a formidable force to be reckoned with on the big screen. This might not be Apatow at the very top of his game, but it’s a thoughtful and interesting comedy tale that offers as many heart-warming moments as it does broad chuckles.

Dir: Judd Apatow

Scr: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, Dave Sirus

Cast: Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow, Steve Buscemi, Ricky Velez, Moises Arias, Lou Wilson

Prd: Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel

DOP: Robert Elswit

Music: Michael Andrews

Country: USA

Year: 2020

Run time: 137 mins

The King of Staten Island is available to rent at home from 12 June.

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