THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND: Surprisingly Tender and Uncomfortably Relatable

I want to talk about FUNNY PEOPLE (2009) for a minute. It’s my favorite thing Judd Apatow’s ever made, in that it marks the only time he’s told a story directly concerned with death. As always, it’s over 2 hours – but no longer just for improv’s sake. Here, that famous Apatow length reflects the experience of living with a cancer diagnosis by protracting time, stretching it out to catch every moment of the grieving process. Watch as Adam Sandler’s character mumbles and dissociates on a stand-up stage, or shuts up his crying friends with cynical jokes – he’s in denial. Try not to feel the loneliness.

THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND (2020) is another lonely story. Pete Davidson plays Scott, a mid-20s guy with depression who’s spent the last 17 years grieving his dead father – a firefighter who died on duty (parallel to Davidson’s real father dying on 9/11). Scott still lives at home and dreams of becoming a tattoo artist, but his friends won’t let him practice on them anymore. The woman he loves is getting sick of his “let’s just be casual” martyr game, and his little sister is about to escape to college. Everyone around him is moving on. Judd Apatow does a great job of differentiating this one from the rest of his career – on a very basic level, it looks and feels new. For the first time, he’s gone chiefly handheld in camerawork and practical in lighting, bringing on DP Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002)) to find soft realism through onscreen sources. It’s warm lamplight at night, cold light through windows in the daytime, and not much else – but you’d never know it. This visual environment, coming from a filmmaker with a background in reliable coverage and generous light, sets a surprisingly tender mood. I was sucked right in.

Scott’s earliest confrontations also have that barebones lack of glamour – opposite to Apatow’s usual instinct, even in FUNNY PEOPLE. He often puts Scott in a dark room with someone who wants him to seriously communicate – and just leaves him to figure out how. He defaults to jokes, just like Sandler’s FUNNY PEOPLE character, but there are more silences from Scott – and from loved ones struggling to respond to him. His jokes are a protective skin; Pete Davidson’s uncomfortably relatable performance makes that very clear. While Sandler leaned into the resignation of depression in FUNNY PEOPLE, Davidson leans into the existential terror that comes with an inability to act against it – especially while you’re in an emotional or financial safety net. Most of the first half’s comedy is peppered with that terror – I laughed, but couldn’t ignore how scared Scott was pretending he wasn’t. None of this makes the movie any less funny; I didn’t get much out of Davidson’s first SNL skits, but here (and in BIG TIME ADOLESCENCE (2020)) I’m struck by just how much his timing has managed to sneak up on me.

The 90-minute mark rolled around, and it seemed like glamour would never show up – not even during Scott’s clearly-telegraphed third act redemption. Apatow has always been fond of giving his characters very strict arcs and cleanly learned lessons, for better or worse. So, the idea of him mutating a conventional finale (e.g. KNOCKED UP (2007) or TRAINWRECK (2015)) with pure, unfiltered depression got me excited. I imagined a lot of things for that last hour, and I was disappointed to see it go with glamour. What came before had the DNA of FUNNY PEOPLE, butthis felt a lot more like KNOCKED UP. Conversations were simpler now; Scott quietly listened to monologues that directly called out and disputed values he’d spoken earlier; his slow and thorny self-improvement became a compilation of fish-out-of-water scenes (e.g. Seth Rogen’s KNOCKED UP character navigating a pregnancy) and dramatic apologies. It all remained funny, but the sacrifice of true-to-life complexity for broad sentimentality – however enjoyable – felt less to me like an earned conclusion than it did a loss.

Regardless of that letdown, I loved the final few scenes. They were still sentimental, yeah, but they brought back those unsure conversations I’d fallen in love with early on; the long silences returned, but now they implied something new. It brought home the one thing I never felt wore thin, not even in the third act: Pete Davidson’s catharsis in airing his own grief. Sure, THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND may not be a complete overhaul of Judd Apatow’s creative voice, but it’s a serious step in the right direction for him as an artist – and gives us a sensitive tour of another artist’s soul.

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