Tuesday, June 30, 2020

“The King of Staten Island”: More Than Skin Deep

Unlike many New York City residents, I’ve actually spent time on Staten Island. Though the island constitutes one of the city’s five boroughs, residents of the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan rarely set foot in what is primarily an urban bedroom community, best reached by the picturesque Staten Island Ferry. But the island has its own patois, its own zoo, its own beaches, and even its own (minor league) baseball team, the Staten Island Yankees.

The mixed sense of pride and embarrassment felt by the residents is conveyed in a raucous but sweet new Judd Apatow comedy, The King of Staten Island. It begins with a clutch of layabout buddies not far into adulthood. Their natural topics of conversation include their chances of scoring good dope and the fact they consider their locale a dead end. Says one, “Why can’t we be cool, like Brooklyn?” Gripes another, “We’re the only place New Jersey looks down on.”

Central to this conversation is Scott, whose dream is to open a combination tattoo parlor and restaurant, to be named Ruby Tattoosday. Like the rest of his life, this dream isn’t going anywhere. At age 24, he doesn’t have a real job and lives at home with his widowed mom. Among his friends he riffs about his neuroses and physical issues (ADD, Crohn’s Disease, you name it) and seems to make light of the fact that his father, a local firefighter, died during a rescue mission in a hotel fire when Scott was seven. It’s clear, though, that having a Hero Dad has made his own life seem insignificant by comparison.

Apatow wrote this film along with comedians Dave Sirus and Pete Davidson. Davidson plays the leading role, one that reflects the broad strokes of his own life. He too was raised on Staten Island, has a host of physical and mental issues, and lost a firefighter-dad in the rubble of the World Trade Center. That’s probably why he seems so wholly credible as Scott, a slacker who is both foul-mouthed and funny, both bone-headed and soft-hearted, dumb enough to get involved in a criminal enterprise and yet smart enough to have the potential to move forward. I don’t think it’s an accident that the film’s final scene finds him on that Staten Island Ferry, heading for Manhattan. This isn’t Saturday Night Fever, but still there’s a sense that, given enough love and guidance, he has the potential to move into a healthy adult life.

A first-rate cast handles with gusto the profanity-laced script. It’s good to see Marisa Tomei, once the Brooklyn bombshell of My Cousin Vinny, as Scott’s plucky mother, who finds love in the most unexpected place. When Tomei won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her Vinny role critics scoffed, unwilling to recognize the brilliance of her comic performance. Years later she nabbed additional nominations for heavily dramatic roles in The Wrestler and In the Bedroom, but I’m glad the current film makes room for her blue-collar spunk as well as her tender heart. There’s also a wonderfully credible sense of blunt camaraderie among the firemen with whom Scott eventually finds a home away from home. I can think of no better compliment than to say that they all feel very real indeed. And such wry throwaway dialogue as (at an emotional moment), “We don’t have to get all Oprah” helps keep the film’s potential sentimentality at bay.

Anyway, there’s not much place for the sentimental in a film that climaxes in a bizarre tattooing session. Personally, I loathe tattoos, but I loved The King of Staten Island. 

A fond farewell to the talented Milton Glaser, to the irreplaceable Carl Reiner, and to the enigmatic Charles Webb, who wrote the novel that became the film The Graduate. More to come!

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