Have you ever wondered what your life would have been like "if only?"
"If only" I hadn't experienced childhood sexual violence that left me scarred emotionally and physically..."If only" I hadn't been born with spina bifida..."If only" I hadn't been raised a Jehovah's Witness..."If only."
I think about "If only" a lot.
If I had to say that my life was defined, and I mean really defined, by any one thing it would likely be the death of my wife by suicide when I was in my early 20's and the subsequent death of my newborn daughter not long after.
I can look back now and see the truth that I was in an unhealthy relationship. I only married Laura because she said "Yes!," a shocking development for someone who never expected to get laid let alone actually be loved.
Of course, I wasn't actually loved. I know that now, or at least I believe that now.
When Laura died, and especially when my daughter Jennifer died, there was something in me that died and I'm not sure it's ever come back to life. Suddenly, moreso than even after I started healing from sexual abuse/violence, I became afraid of touch. I stopped getting into relationships and the few that I did get into were immersed in dysfunction. I put up walls that were too high and too impenetrable for most to climb. I stopped living. I stopped loving.
Oh sure, it was masked behind a sort of sadsack likability. I've always been likable but, if I'm being honest, I've always sort of regarded myself as too much in the way of damaged goods for anything else.
Anyway who knows me even a little bit won't be surprised that I resonated greatly with Judd Apatow's latest film, The King of Staten Island, a semi-iconic motion picture about a less than iconic sadsack who's drowning in a kind of grief he can't possibly explain because he doesn't want to explain it.
It's scary. He's scared.
Scott, played by SNL's ultimate sadsackster Pete Davidson in such a way that you know there's more than a little bit of Scott inside Davidson, is a 24-year-old Staten Island nothing who doesn't really want to be something. He lives his life in a pot and pill sort of hazy stupor, something mighty close to what Davidson has acknowledged is true in his own life. He might have potential, but he doesn't know and we sure don't know it. It might be a stretch to call him likable, but he's never really unlikable. He just sort of exists by killing time on his mom's sofa watching television or hunkered down in a grungy urban basement with his stoner friends doing whatever things stoner friends do.
It's mostly a bunch of nothing.
He can't seem to hold a job, but he's got something resembling a dream. It's a combo restaurant/tattoo parlor that he wants to call "Ruby Tattuesday's."
Admit it. You laughed. It's kind of funny in a scary sort of way.
If you've ever seen Davidson, then you've seen Scott. He's got those big ole' sad eyes and just enough wit that you can't help but believe there's a spark of life deep down inside him somewhere. You'll spend the vast majority of The King of Staten Island hoping he finds it, though most of the characters that Apatow brings to life eventually find it. Apatow believes in Scott, you can feel that and it's likely more than Davidson has ever believed in himself.
You won't come away from The King of Staten Island believing that Davidson is going to turn into an Oscar-winning actor anytime soon, but you will come away from it believing that this may very well be the kind of part he was born to play. The King of Staten Island is a messy film, but it's messy in the way that life is messy and it's easily one of Apatow's best efforts with an emotional depth that is surprising and humor that arises naturally from the story rather than being pigeon-holed to superglue the story together. Penned by Apatow, Davidson, and Dave Sirus, The King of Staten Island is funny, insightful, and emotionally honest in a jarringly normal sort of way.
There's a lot of truth here and it feels true. Scott grew up on Staten Island, his life forever changed when he lost his father and hero, a firefighter, when he was seven-years-old. In case you're unaware, Davidson lost his own firefighter father on 9/11, a trauma that seems to have compounded an existing aura of sadness and overall life malaise. While it's clear that Davidson is at least partly playing himself he plays it with an absolute gut-check vulnerability. We meet Scott in a harrowing scene that for some reason doesn't quite feel harrowing...it feels like it's more apathy than an actual suicide attempt but we also get the feeling Scott's been here before.
I remember those days myself.
While Davidson's performance could go wildly awry, it never does. Davidson's Scott is incredibly nuanced, equally convincing in the numerous moments of dark humor and int hose moments when everything feels so real you can barely breathe.
His stoner friends include Oscar (Ricky Velez), Igor (Moises Arias), and Richie (Lou Wilson). They're seemingly good guys and the four of them actually seem to care about one another in whatever way they're capable of caring. It's funny but serious. You know what I mean?
When Scott hangs back from saying goodbye to his sister Claire (Maude Apatow) as she heads off to college, it's a little funny that he's just gotta finish watching Spongebob Squarepants, but you know there's more there. You can see it in Scott's eyes - an awareness that his younger sister is making something of herself and he's still stuck.
But, he's still stuck.
There's gallows humor, even about Scott's dad, but it's funny in that sort of "Should I laugh at that?" kind of way. He does, but you can't help but believe that his laughter is hiding his pain.
Bel Powley is mesmerizing as Kelsey, Scott's almost girlfriend who is interested in more than Scott's likely capable of giving. Kelsey is good for Scott and you can just tell that scares the crap out of him. She's a diehard Staten Island girl who's unafraid to be proud of being from Staten Island and plans to work in city planning precisely because she believes Staten Island is awesome. You'll like her. I sure did. Scott does, but that still scares him.
I get that. I remember that. He sees himself as damaged goods, that's for sure, and deep down you know he kind of blames himself for his father's death and he's scared to love her because she might go away too. I can't lie. I cried more than once watching these two together, my own fears of getting closer, letting go, surrendering, touching, loving, whatever...everybody I love dies it seems and the easiest way to keep that from happening is to just not get close.
Scott gets it. Maybe you do. Maybe you don't.
Scott likes living with his mom, played to perfection by Marisa Tomei. It's a comfortable place. It feels safe and Scott clings to safety like Linus refusing to let go of his blanket.
But, of course, The King of Staten Island is a movie and we know something's going to change.
It has to change.
Scott's life is changing. Claire is off to college and after 16 years of being single Scott's mom has started dating. Ray (Bill Burr) is a seemingly good guy, but he's a firefighter and, even harder, he was an acquaintance of Scott's dad.
Scott is coming face-to-face with everything...life, love, trauma, memories, independence, being an adult...so much that it feels overwhelming for a good majority of the film's 137-minute running time. It's a long film, but that's standard for Apatow and it feels right here even with a few story threads that feel kind of weird. There's an odd detour into a robbery scenario that feels oddly placed yet still works, while Scott's being tasked with walking Ray's two young kids to school seems extraneous but I promise you it's not.
It's really not.
The King of Staten Island is a sublime New York-set motion picture and oozes New York in every frame. Bill Burr gives the performance of his life here, an absolutely top-notch turn in a role that could have so easily been one-note. It's so much more.
Pamela Adlon shines as Ray's ex-wife and Kevin Corrigan does fine work as Scott's cousin, who gives him a job in his restaurant. Eventually, of course, Scott starts living more in the neighborhood, a venture out to his father's fire station leaving me in tears and bringing those tears back now even as I write this. Steve Buscemi, a former firefighter himself, is memorable as a longtime firefighter and former friend of Scott's dad.
This is an Apatow film, so you know there's going to be some way too smooth tidying up done here and there and it would have been nice to see a bit more subtlety in unfolding transformations, but by the time the film starts winding down Scott and Pete Davidson are so intertwined that you can't help but feel like Scott deserves a bit of a break.
So does Pete.
Apatow has upped his cinematography game by recruiting Robert Elswit to lens The King of Staten Island. It's a decision that pays off richly as Elswit beautifully brings Staten Island to life and captures the film's lighter and darker moments with precision, honesty, and creativity. The original music by Michael Andrews is tremendously effective.
Beautiful and funny, honest and heartfelt, The King of Staten Island may very well be my favorite Judd Apatow film to date and it works even better because it's not quite a perfect film. It's better than perfect. It's honest. In real life, Davidson found comedy and it likely saved his life even in those moments when he's wonder if his life was worth saving. Scott struggles to reach that moment, a moment where he can say "I'm worth something," but his journey feels rich and true and even when he irritates the crap out of you you'll find yourself thinking "I'd let him crash on my couch."
We all deserve something close to a happy ending, though sometimes life gets in the way and sometimes we get in the way of life. I get that. I get that myself and I work every single day trying to break those cycles and stop listening to those old tapes.
Rambling and messy and tonally weird at times, The King of Staten Island is still something pretty special and, perhaps more than anything, it's a funny and powerful reminder that we actually do need each other and giving up on one another isn't an option.
The King of Staten Island opens up on Friday, June 12th through most VOD/Cable outlets.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic