We’re living through a seriously unfunny pocket of history. Anger over police brutality and racial injustice has spurred radical action that’s been a long time coming. A global pandemic has frozen us all in place, disproportionately harming or killing the vulnerable. People struggle to feed their families as unemployment soars. And we don’t even have the promise of summer movies—particularly the mindless summer comedy, watched in the dark with a bunch of strangers—to help us forget ourselves for just an hour or two.
Can a comedy streamed into your home, and watched alone or perhaps with one or two other people, offer any solace right now? This summer will be the test, with upcoming comedies including a new Will Ferrell film, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga; Irresistible, a political comedy written and directed by Jon Stewart; and Palm Springs, a rom-com in which Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti play wedding attendees who get stuck together in a time loop.
The good news is that the first big comedy of the summer, The King of Staten Island, directed by Judd Apatow and starring Pete Davidson, is a potentially auspicious kickoff. Loose-jointed and openhearted, a wink of reassurance in our age of anxiety, it’s that rare comedy that may actually play better in the living room than it does in the theater.
Davidson plays Scott, a 24-year-old Staten Island native who’s frozen in perpetual adolescence, still living at home. An aspiring tattoo artist, he hopes to open a combo tattoo parlor and restaurant called Ruby Tattoosdays, a spectacularly bad idea. He smokes so much weed that it no longer gets him high; smoking, he says, just makes him feel like himself. He has a friend-with-benefits who loves him—she’s played, wonderfully, by Bel Powley—but he pushes her away. “There’s something wrong with me,” he explains. Scott’s father, a firefighter, died when he was 7, and when his mother (Marisa Tomei, effervescent as always) starts dating a new guy—also a firefighter—he acts out in crabby-toddler fashion.
It takes forever for anything to really happen in The King of Staten Island. But then, Apatow’s pictures are often extended character sketches with plots tied to their tails, willy-nilly, almost like multiple TV episodes melded into movie form. (The script for this one was written by Apatow, Davidson and Dave Sirus, and is loosely based on Davidson’s own life.) But Davidson—shuffling along in his long, baggy shorts and athletic slides with socks—carries The King of Staten Island ably on his stooped shoulders. With his broad, solemn mouth and exhausted raccoon eyes, he looks like a cartoon of himself, a sketch rendered in broad strokes and charcoal smudges. Scott is maddening, but we can see how he’s his own worst enemy. To see him begin to kick out of his desperate loop releases some of our tension too.
That’s one of the benefits of comedy: in laughing at ourselves, we also look at ourselves. What will comedy be like in the future, once we’ve processed all that has happened to us in this strange and unsettling time? Right now, everyone is very serious about the business at hand. But we all need to live in the world with our receptors open, which means someday we’re going to have to laugh again. That’s serious business too. Neglecting it for too long will be the death of us.