Directed By Judd Apatow
Starring – Pete Davidson, Bel Powley, Ricky Velez
The Plot – Scott (Davidson) has been a case of arrested development ever since his firefighter father died when he was seven. He’s now reached his mid-20s having achieved little, chasing a dream of becoming a tattoo artist that seems far out of reach. As his ambitious younger sister (Maude Apatow) heads off to college, Scott is still living with his exhausted ER nurse mother (Marisa Tomei) and spends his days smoking weed, hanging with the guys; Oscar (Velez), Igor (Moises Arias) and Richie (Lou Wilson), and secretly hooking up with his childhood friend Kelsey (Powley). But when his mother starts dating a loudmouth firefighter named Ray (Bill Burr), it sets off a chain of events that will force Scott to grapple with his grief and take his first tentative steps toward moving forward in life.
Rated R for adult language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images
– Group effort. There isn’t a single bad performance in the bunch of this talented ensemble who each contribute to the promise of the film pivotally. However, this is definitely Davidson’s show, and one that feels autobiographical considering the story is based off of the real life loss of his firefighting father on September 11th, 2001. Pete’s brunt deliveries are still there for elements of deranged dry humor, but it’s his character’s evolution while building towards a therapeutic release that is especially evident, living through grief that feels more clearly defined with each passing minute. Aside from Davidson, the dynamic romance between Burr and Tomei is especially nourishing, providing an air of big name class and majesty in a film that would otherwise be a Pete Davidson smoke-out between he and his friends. Finally, appearances by Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Tatro, and even Machine Gun Kelly round out a versatile and finely illustrated cast that chew up as much scenery as a tree shredder, all the while contributing to the likeability of these very human Staten Island residents.
– Stirring second act. I had a bit of a difficulty feeling invested during the film’s opening half hour, mainly because the movie feels like another stoner comedy from Apatow, which derives from more of the same from a talented director. Thankfully, the second act materializes, and brings with it an ample amount of dramatic heft and everchanging dynamics to contribute towards the film’s narrative. Especially when Burr’s character moves into frame, the writing feels sharper than ever, taking us through a step parent rivalry with no shortage of protagonist grit thanks to Davidson’s clearly annoyed registry, which makes for a few memorable moments. This is also the point when Scott begins to learn more about his deceased father, which in turn eases some of the pressure that he’s been feeling to live up to a myth created by those meant to protect him. It sets up a third act epiphany that deviates from some of the conventions of predictable storytelling, and evenly distributes the film’s multiple genre categories accordingly with realness to material that earns every emotion it pulls from its audience.
– Echoing production quality. The somber cinematography and pale color correction scheme contribute exceptionally to the film’s dramedy hybrid classification that the material works so effectively towards attaining. This gives “Staten Island” a feeling that is visually unlike anything else from his respected filmography except maybe “Funny People”, and more absorbing thematically than anything we’re used to from Apatow. From the very first shot of the movie, we are introduced to this world and people with a complimentary vapid feeling of absence that fills the air. That absence is either materially as something like goals from Scott’s life, or the obvious; the devastating loss of his father, and the effect that it’s had on all of these people. For the first time in a while, this feels like a film that Apatow had a hand in crafting every single element of the film’s cherished production, giving us a cohesive brand of self-deprecating humor that is stripped down in its most honest and forth-coming depiction.
– Sacrificial story. Through the many themes and subplots that the movie delves through, the one that I found the most riveting for its poignancy is that of the depiction of firefighters and what comes from such a heroic career. The sacrifice of their lives has always been evident, especially in a story that centers around one of their fallen comrades, but the film’s attention to those left behind is what’s especially rewarding to me the viewer, especially since the choice never feels theirs. In this regard, we come to know Scott, who lost his father at the age of 7, before he could remember much about him. Throughout the film, Scott’s anger towards his father and even the profession feel almost selfishly deposited, but with a clever vantage point that takes place late in the second act, we start to comprehend his disposition, and grow tremendous empathy for the character that endeared him to us through some questionable motives. It doesn’t condone or approve of Scott’s decisions, but rather illustrates them cerebrally in a way that each of us fruitfully interpret, giving way to the pain that the living still feel after the deceased are long gone.
– The setting. We’ve heard it countless times before, but Staten Island is its own character in the movie. The only difference is that in this movie it doesn’t get in the way of the pieces moving so feverishly throughout it. In over two hours set entirely in the titular city, we get a sense of self-loathing and polarization for this place that for better or worse defines the people inside it. In addition to this, the attention to detail of every cast member maintaining the accent consistently is one that I especially appreciated, and kept me in the New York state of mind no matter where the story wandered. Finally, Apatow’s decision to shoot the film on location is the most rewarding for the believability of the picture, moving in and out of the split level houses that envelope its many colorful characters. The warmly intimate photography channels a rare love-letter for the town that is illustrated so vividly that you can practically smell and taste the air that is so crisply defined.
– Firm balance. Most expect an Apatow film to be comedy first and drama second, but “Staten Island” is quite the opposite, all the while balancing a firm appreciation for each’s respective role in a story so abstractly different from him. The comedy, while not even close to his best, does land more times than not, channeling a levity to its deposits that never sacrifices the stakes or seriousness of its dramatic counterparts. As for the dramatic elements, the film honestly surprised me with how deep it digs at this character study of a man in a permanent state of arrested development. Part of it resonates disappointment for a kid with such potential that he could do anything, but often settles for the easiest and laziest ways to spend his days, but the other part is the unsettling casting of outsiders who try to make him into a father he never knew. Apatow balances these hefty themes accordingly with a desire to outline them in serious and joking context, which blends wonderfully without contradicting the other, and makes “Staten Island” perhaps the deepest film of his nearly thirty years in cinema.
– Eclectic soundtrack. As with any Apatow movie, the song selections have to breed reminder into a certain place and time, and this movie is no exception to the desired quota. With varied tracks and genre’s that range from the trailer heavy Wallflowers “One Headlight”, to Salt N Pepa’s romp “Push It”, to even contemporary tracks like Lizzo’s “Juice”. “Pursuit of Happiness” by Kid Cudi is also thrown in there, because this is of course a post-2008 comedy, but the point is the entirety of the soundtrack has a vibrancy in personality that not only mirrors that of its central protagonist, but also authenticates a varied appeal that will stretch with any kind of audience member that is audibly entertains. Collectively, it’s one of the best that has been sampled in the 2020 movie year thus far, but separately they are an audio scrapbook that constantly and intentionally adds sentimentality towards the film by the audience who endure it.
– Ambitious run time. Like most Judd Apatow flicks, this one has a lengthy run time (137 minutes) that overstays its welcome a bit once redundancy and fluff of the script become evident. For my money, there’s a series of scenes and subplots that could be wiped from the film completely, especially one involving a crime committed by Scott and friends that feels jarringly different from anything else in the film surrounding it. The pacing is decent throughout, with the exception of the plodding first act that I previously mentioned, but “Staten Island” could afford to lose around twenty minutes of its finished product, and sacrifice nothing creatively because of the loss. It would instill a sense of urgency to a film that sometimes takes too naturalistic of an approach in documenting the many twists and turns of life, and keep audiences glued on the meat of the material that is sandwiched between what feels like a director’s cut of the finished product.
– Forgotten subplots. There are many of these and supporting characters who are introduced throughout the film that are never seen or heard from again. Most of these feel like plot conveniences who are only there to push the narrative ahead, but others are given serious amounts of time at their disposal only to have such a minimal impact on the screenplay that they accompany. It feels like Apatow had so many ideas that he wanted to convey towards this film, and only had so many different avenues of attaining them. It emits several macguffins with very few satisfying payoffs for their rendering, and points towards even more of the first negative listed that could’ve tightened up the material, and left more time for expositional development towards the two dynamics that truly matter; Son and Mom, and Son and Stepdad.
– Unfulfilling ending. While there was satisfaction in the slice of life final moments that supplant our many characters and respective subplots, the lack of clarity that was absent in the resolution left me yearning for more of a monumental payoff reflective of all of the character’s angst and agony. It’s not a terrible ending, just one that is emotionally flat for a movie with no shortage of emotional resonance, and considering much of the movie builds towards this climatic moment of self-discovery within the protagonist, his moment of change is anything but echoing and clearly defined. It wraps things up in a way that is too simplistic to serve as anything other than an afterthought to the trials and tribulations of the character, wrapping things up in an ambiguously flat way that short-changes the execution of an otherwise personal story to Davidson both on and off-screen.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-