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‘The King of Staten Island’ Is More Than Just Outer-Borough Tourism

Judd Apatow has a history of hyper-reflexivity, turning his films into ruminations on his own world. His latest Pete Davidson–led project, though, suggests a conscious effort to change, and let the story unfold independent of himself.

Dan Evans

The weirdest scene in any Judd Apatow movie has to be the bit in Trainwreck when LeBron James stages an intervention for his close friend Aaron (Bill Hader) featuring Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick, and Marv Albert. It’s an amazing assemblage, and Hader’s character knows it; as the only noncelebrity in the room, he’s at once skeptical and freaked out about what it all means. “Not all of us can be Ferris Bueller and marry the star of Sex and the City,” his character pleads at one point, by way of explaining his modest goals. “Why not? I did,” Broderick replies, secure in the knowledge that what Aaron calls his “charmed life” is just business as usual.

The point isn’t whether the sequence is funny (if we’re ranking the cameos, Marv Albert is the MVP) but what it suggests about Apatow’s relationship to celebrity, which is at once self-conscious and second nature. It’s a complex structure that gets another variation in The King of Staten Island, which hits VOD on Friday and stars Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson as a version of himself, a heavily tattooed 20-something dealing with depression and mourning the tragic death of his firefighter father while deciding what to do with his life.

Famous people and their well-established personalities have served as punch lines in Apatow’s work from the beginning. As a writer in the 1990s on the hugely influential HBO series The Larry Sanders Show, he was partially responsible for an in-house style predicated on a purposeful—and at times audacious—blurring of the line between showbiz satire and the real thing. This trickery began with the fact that Garry Shandling’s acting in the title role of a smarmy Johnny Carson wannabe was, to paraphrase Ben Folds Five, the best imitation of himself.

As Apatow moved from TV into features, his sensibility remained the same. The 40-Year-Old Virgin is basically a parody of a standard-issue romantic comedy, but it draws its biggest laughs from celebrity specifics, like the priceless running joke about Michael McDonald serving as an electronics store’s running Greek chorus. (“If I hear ‘Yah Mo Be There’ one more time,” says Paul Rudd’s salesman to the boss played by Jane Lynch, “I’m gonna yah mo burn this place to the ground.”)

Apatow’s insistence as a director on a certain kind of naturalism—a lived-in, hang-out vibe far less cartoony than the surrealist excesses of Anchorman or You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, which he produced and wrote, respectively—to some extent justifies his fetish for pop-cultural authenticity. (Contrast this with his former HBO stablemates Bob Odenkirk and David Cross on Mr. Show, who mostly invented celebrity figures instead of directly impersonating anyone, and kept cameos to a minimum.) It’s one thing to have your characters relentlessly name-check well-known Hollywood figures (“be like David Caruso in Jade,” Seth Rogen tells Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and another to angle your cinema so far in the direction of art imitating life that it starts to feel less like a strategy and more like an obsession—one that’s yielded interestingly mixed results.

In Knocked Up—still probably Apatow’s funniest movie, pound for pound and joke for joke—Seth Rogen and his stoner buddies were surrogates for the schlubs in the audience; they obsessed over Hollywood from a distance, deconstructing Munich at the club and cataloging nude scenes (“boobs and bush!” is their verdict on the Hitchcockian opening scene of Carrie) as overgrown fanboys. The joke that Katherine Heigl’s character was simultaneously lobbying to be a host on E! News permitted a few peripheral giggles at Ryan Seacrest’s expense, but it didn’t take over the movie in any significant way; the Los Angeles setting is background texture and nothing more.

By the time Rogen reconnected with Apatow in Funny People, though, his alter ego was a wannabe stand-up comedian playing private parties for MySpace with James Taylor and palling around the Comedy Store with Adam Sandler’s George Simmons—a Sandler manqué who stands as the apex of Apatow’s metafictional creations, even though the movie around him isn’t perfectly realized.

What Funny People gets right, at times to a painful degree, was the way that fame attracts hangers-on like moths to a flame. It also evokes what it looks like when that flame is burning out; in a superbly measured and self-deprecating performance, Sandler believably shows off the dark side of being a household name. Whatever Funny People’s flaws may be (beginning with its epic running time), Apatow’s decision to weave almost every important scene around the motif and details of celebrity—George’s pals include Gilbert Gottfried, Norm MacDonald, and Ray Romano, all playing themselves—makes sense and plays effectively in the context of the film’s larger themes.

That Funny People begins with a bit of camcorder footage recorded when Apatow and Sandler were slacker pals and not superstars is sweet; elsewhere though, Apatow’s fixation on his famous friends can be a liability. In This Is 40, Paul Rudd went from bitching about overexposure to the best Doobie Brother to debating music-industry strategy with Billie Joe Armstrong; the faux-casualness of the Green Day frontman’s cameo is distracting. Ditto the aforementioned intervention scene in Trainwreck, which derails whatever dramatic momentum the movie was building up; it’s like a deleted scene inserted into a finished movie, or an SNL dress rehearsal broadcast at five minutes to midnight. At a certain point, Apatow’s deployment of marquee names as supporting players stopped feeling truly spontaneous and funny and more like a crutch, or just evidence that by that point, the director’s version of reality hovered in the rarified air of the A-list.

Which is fair enough: If you believe the idea that people should “write what they know,” then Apatow’s self-reflexive sensibility comes from an honest place. And yet the ratio in his work of satire versus basic, check-out-my-Rolodex flexing is debatable.

Apatow’s cameo as an “asshole producer” in The Disaster Artist is undeniably clever. Castigating über-weirdo Tommy Wiseau for being talentless in a swanky Los Angeles restaurant, Apatow gets to play an obnoxious emissary of the showbiz establishment while winking at the fact that the actor he’s yelling at—James Franco in full Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer drag—is actually one of his prize discoveries, the most ambitious alumnus of Freaks and Geeks. Of course, Freaks and Geeks was about underdogs, but these days, Apatow keeps pace with front-runners, and the tension between his innate sympathy for losers (or maybe the kind of “losers” regularly mythologized in American movie comedies in the decades since Animal House) and his own box-office accomplishments is hard to reconcile. It was hard, for instance, to have too much sympathy for the central couple in This Is 40 when their financial struggles felt so phony juxtaposed against the glossy cinematography and parade of familiar faces; as much as the movie tried to strip away layers of Hollywood cliché to focus on the raw, exposed nerves of marital dynamics, the sitcom-ish insularity of the characters’ tax bracket kept things too cozy.

Historically, many of the best American film comedies have been meditations on class, from the screwball classics of the 1930s and ’40s, which kidded and demolished privilege, to the snobs vs. slobs subtext of Animal House and Caddyshack to the satirical vision of upward mobility of Raising Arizona, with its baby-snatching trailer-park heroes arguing that their nouveau-riche rivals already had “more than they could handle.” A contemporary, Apatow-adjacent movie such Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, in which Jesse Eisenberg’s suburban slacker is forced to take a shitty summer job to pay for a college tuition threatened by his father’s unemployment, offers a grounded, clear-eyed view of everyday economics absent in the likes of, say, Trainwreck, in which LeBron’s refusal to pick up the check at lunch with Hader’s (still well-paid) surgeon is just another absurdist gag.

The best and most refreshing thing about The King of Staten Island is how it sidesteps this tendency, as well as the theme of fame altogether. Like Funny People, it’s been made in Davidson’s image, but without any explicit connection to his real-life career. Reviewing Davidson’s Netflix special Alive From New York for The Ringer earlier this year, Rob Harvilla wrote about how intensely its jokes “thrive on the uneasily thin barrier between the frail human and the troubled boldface name,” suggesting Davidson’s willingness—or maybe dependence—to mine his own media drama for material. Yet in Staten Island, there’s no Ariana Grande stand-in, no references to Dan Crenshaw or Saturday Night Live. Imagine 8 Mile if B. Rabbit’s secret dream was to franchise a TGI Fridays and you have some idea of the cognitive dissonance.

Davidson, who’s got soulful eyes and a rictus grin (“you look like an anorexic panda,” he’s told at one point), is no worse an actor than Eminem. (A reminder: Em actually showed up in Funny People, staring down Romano in a bizarre bit steeped in a strangely confessional self-hatred.) But what 8 Mile had going for it beyond director Curtis Hanson’s old-hand craftsmanship was its star’s virtuosity, as well as a story that explicitly showcased his skill set and allowed him to score a series of verbal victories modeled on his past as a battle rapper.

If The King of Staten Island doesn’t go that route, it’s partially because Davidson isn’t a virtuoso; he doesn’t do impressions and he’s not a comic conceptualist à la Andy Samberg, the living link between himself and Sandler. It’s also partially because Apatow is, to some extent, trying something new. There are familiar faces in The King of Staten Island, including Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, and Steve Buscemi, but they’re all playing characters; the closest the film comes to self-reflexivity is the presence of Maude Apatow as Scott’s contemptuously protective sister, an all-in-the-family gambit less significant than the actress’s earlier appearances in Knocked Up, Funny People, and This Is 40, in which it seemed that Judd was genuinely working through something about his own domestic life by casting his kids and wife.

The goal this time is different, and even if The King of Staten Island follows a traditionally Apatowian arc as a tale of a fuck-up who learns to straighten up and fly right, its immersion in a more marginal, working-class milieu gives it a fetching sense of distance from its predecessors. Its portrait of New York City’s furthermost wilderness feels like it emanates from—and belongs to—the characters rather than being an exercise in West Coast tourism. The insularity isn’t a matter of status: The scenes set in a local firehouse are big on macho posturing and affectionate mockery of same (the group of dudes broing down to “One Headlight” is Apatow’s best music cue since Ol’ Dirty Bastard raised the curtain on Knocked Up) but they resonate with curiosity and respect far removed from the L.A. stories Apatow specializes in. Despite Scott’s myriad mental health and substance misuse issues, there’s no actual intervention scene in The King of Staten Island, but the film itself feels like the work of somebody trying to make a change, whether or not it actually lasts.