Normally, first-time directors are the ones to release a sprawling, everything-must-be-included types of movie because who knows if it will be their only shot at the big time.
Writer-director Judd Apatow’s first movie, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” was pretty much the exact opposite — a tight, mostly focused romp of raunch and improv comedy.
His sixth studio comedy, “The King of Staten,” starring “SNL’s” Peter Davidson, oddly has that newcomer’s sense of wanting it to be everything to everyone. While it doesn’t fully succeed, it has enough charm to guide itself through the messy parts.
Co-written by Davidson, Apatow and Dave Sirus, “King” is a semi-autobiographical story of Davidson’s upbringing in the poverty-meets-gaudy suburbs of Staten Island. Living with his single mother, Margie (a fantastic Marisa Tomei) and sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), who’s about to go off to college, Scott (Davidson) is in the shadow of his father, a firefighter who died during a building collapse (Davidson’s real-life father, to whom the movie is dedicated, died while on duty in New York on 9/11).
There’s a hole in Scott’s soul left by the lack of a father figure, causing him to act out in different ways, from using drugs to hooking up to causing problems with his friends. While he longs to become a tattoo artist, his lack of training and penchant for rebelling against authority, including the area’s leading tattoo artists, stifles his chances of getting that shot.
While Scott often is away from home with his friends, Margie is also suffering. She hasn’t dated anyone in a decade and sees a second chance with Ray (comedian Bill Burr, in a star-making role), a firefighter she meets after Scott tries to give his young son a tattoo.
All of these worlds collide in wild, comedic fashion where lessons are learned and Scott grows as a young adult. In other words, despite it leaning more on drama than comedy, it’s an Apatow movie at its heart.
Shot by cinematographer Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood,” “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”), this is one of Apatow’s best looking movies, capturing young adults trapped in a downtrodden sprawl of Staten Island that collides with the often tacky people in the upper class. When Davidson and his friends are stuck in a dingy basement or abandoned basketball court, you see the sweat gather on their brows and almost feel that stale, humid summer heat.
The ensemble sells the class struggle, with Davidson proving to be a decent dramatic and comedic presence, able to bounce between the mood swings of being overjoyed and almost dangerously unhappy with ease. Burr and Tomei are the fluttering heart of the movie, being one of the few middle-aged romances featured in a mainstream comedy. Their palpable chemistry is a joy to watch.
This being an Apatow movie, it’s about 20 minutes too long. There are too many montages and unnecessary scenes, including an inspirational sequence set to instrumental rock band Explosions In The Sky that comes off as both corny and a decade too late.
I appreciate the efforts Apatow is taking to stretch his directing muscles, especially 15 years into that part of his career. He’s leaning less on tired, goofy improv and crude humor and allowing the cast to live in this world without having to strain a quip every 15 seconds.
Maybe it overstays its welcome and takes some questionable detours, but this movie is charming enough that you don’t regret hanging out.
”The King of Staten Island” is available to rent on Video On Demand services starting on Friday.