It is hard to know whether Judd Apatow grew up or I did.
Once upon a time — 2007 to be precise — I found his portraits of aged but still adolescent boys to be funny. Not just sad. Not just painful. Not just uncomfortable. Genuinely funny. Knocked Up had a sweetness to go with its goofiness, and I think it stemmed from us wanting to believe that boys, as much as they love porn, weed, and video games, would know when it was time to put away childish things.
These days I’m not so sure. Humor can be uncomfortable when it makes you laugh knowingly, but The King of Staten Island provokes more winces than giggles.
A typical example comes in a pivotal scene in which Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) attempts to put a tattoo on a boy he has just met. Even his stoner friends think this is a bit too much. But nevertheless, he persists. Eventually the boy gets scared and runs away, but when his father confronts Scott’s mother, our hero at first denies, then excuses his criminal behavior. The nine or ten year-old boy “looked” eighteen! Scott was stoned! The boy wanted it!
One expects the tattoo incident, like the pregnancy in Knocked Up, to serve as a wake up call, or at least as what alcoholics call “a moment of clarity.” Instead, it becomes the meet-cute between Scott’s widowed mom and a firefighter who worked with Scott’s dad in the only fire station in America where the entire crew seems obvious that someone who died in the line of duty might have had a family.
Eventually the firefighter, Ray Bishop (Bill Burr) becomes the surrogate dad that was all Scott apparently ever needed. His patronage and some long overdue boundary drawing from Scott’s mom nudge the boy towards taking on minimal adult responsibilities.
Sometimes a movie with unlikable protagonists can be salvaged by interesting and likable supporting characters, but that’s not the case here. Scott’s mom gets one marginal laugh when he comes to apologize to her by walking him outside the house and shutting the door in his face. Scott’s sister says, “You’re my older brother, your supposed to look out for me,” and then disappears from the second-half of the movie. It is hard to root for this family.
One is supposed to forgive all, I think, because Scott’s father is a dead firefighter. And honestly, I might have, if the film had allowed itself to be more centrally about grief or more convincing that the shadow of a great man was what was inhibiting the protagonist. If the death of Scott’s dad is supposed to be a root cause of his delinquency, shouldn’t processing that death be part of his steps toward maturity? In a very strange exchange, a character tells Scott, “You’re dad is looking down on you,” to which he replies, “No, he’s not.”
Is Scott in denial? Shock? Did dad’s death lead to a crisis of faith? Nothing in Scott’s behavior or his family’s reaction to it suggests that he was any different when his father was around. It’s like dad’s death is a giant Maguffin, which is a tad offensive.
This probably won’t be the last time I mention in a review that contemporary comedy doesn’t seem to understand or care much for the historic separation of Horatian and Juvenalian satire. The former is indulgent, inviting us to laugh gently at a mirror to our own foibles. The latter is scathing, inviting us to point a finger and laugh at what is risible or contemptible in another. The King of Staten Island has the indulgent tone of Horatian satire, but the only mirror I see myself in is that of the impatient characters pained by Scott’s relentless, aggressive apathy. Even that’s a bit of a cliché. Granted, I am a university professor, so my view may be skewed, but from where I sit, people in their twenties are passionately engaged in the world around us, striving to make it a better place. I’m finding it hard these days to laugh at caricatures of youthful indolence. Truthfully, I’m more apt to question why I ever found such portraits amusing in the first place.