A man-child comedy, a moral drama and an animated canine adventure hit the screen on Friday.
The films of Judd Apatow often feature comic portrayals of immature or derailed men who are jolted into acting their age when a major personal challenge, like impending fatherhood (“Knocked Up”) or a serious illness (“Funny People”), happens to them.
“The King of Staten Island,” Apatow’s latest opening on video on demand, was created in collaboration with star and cowriter Pete Davidson, who’s added dark ingredients of trauma and mental illness to Apatow’s familiar heart and raunch.
The silly and the serious don’t mix well, but the movie doesn’t entirely disappoint.
Davidson, from “Saturday Night Live,” plays Scott, a 24-year-old Staten Islander and aspiring tattoo artist who lives with his ER-nurse mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), and college-bound sister, Claire (Maude Apatow). Scott’s father, a fireman, died while fighting a hotel blaze when Scott was 7, and Scott’s been a traumatized non-achiever ever since. He drives like a sociopath and hangs out with his stoner buddies all day. Sometimes, he sleeps with semi-girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley), who’s fed up with his refusal to commit.
Scott unwittingly shakes up his insulated life when he stupidly tattoos the arm of a 9-year-old on the beach. After cooling off, the boy’s blusterous father, Ray (Bill Burr), a firefighter with a bad mustache but a kind heart, begins dating Margie. Scott is aghast. He views Ray’s presence as an affront to his dead dad.
The situation forces Scott out of the nest, and he eventually lands at the firehouse where Ray works and sleeps. He begins to fit in with the men, some of whom knew his father, and finds a mentor in old-timer Papa (Steve Buscemi).
Davidson, whose personal life inspired the screenplay, — cowritten with Apatow and Dave Sirus — has some effective moments in the movie, which, when serious, thoughtfully addresses grief and childhood trauma.
When Scott, referring to his boyhood tragedy, states that firefighters shouldn’t have children, he’s authentic and moving.
In lighter form, he can be entertaining in his cynicism. When Ray’s young daughter sings “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’,” Scott praises her vocal ability, but “can’t agree with the sentiment” of the lyrics.
Unfortunately, however, the hostile and childish Scott is a challenging protagonist, and, as played by Davidson, is not compelling or sympathetic enough to sustain viewers’ steady emotional investment.
And the movie’s smarter and deeper material isn’t plentiful enough to prevail over flat passages. Apatow’s ambitious plot, which takes 137 minutes to unfold, contains too many strands that miss their mark. The often unfunny arrested-development humor clashes with the serious content.
The supporting players are a plus, though the male characters are more developed than the women. Tomei as a widow finding new love and Burr, whose Ray nearly steals the movie, are wonderful (their coffee date is a highlight).
Buscemi’s firefighter character looks like an older, wearier version of Davidson’s Scott. Powley, whose Kelsey wants to be a city planner so she can make Staten Island a more vital version of itself, deserves more screen time, though Apatow does grant her a Staten Island Ferry moment.
Staten Island, with its working-class communities and Yankees games (Staten Island minor-leaguers, that is), is itself a character, and the movie serves as a fond and affectionately critical salute to it. Scott calls New York City’s most unglamorous borough the “only place New Jersey looks down on,” but, like Kelsey, he can’t imagine any other home.
The King of Staten Island
Starring: Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley
Written by: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, Dave Sirus
Directed by: Judd Apatow
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
* * *
From a place far from Apatowland comes Jeremy Hersh’s “The Surrogate,” a drama whose protagonists are responsible people trying to make thorny life choices properly and maturely. Centering on three friends and the unexpected results of a prenatal test, this modestly scaled moral drama, on video on demand, is stimulating viewing.
Hersh folds issues of surrogacy, ableism and selective abortion into a friendship plot, and immerses us in a debate, in this sharply talky feature debut. His lead characters are a trio of successful, progressive Brooklynites who, in an early scene, erupt into elation over the family they’re starting.
Jess (Jasmine Batchelor), a 29-year-old web designer, has become pregnant with the child she’s agreed to bear for longtime pal Josh (Chris Perfetti) and his husband, Aaron (Sullivan Jones). Bliss gives way to concern, however, when a doctor reveals that the baby will likely be born with Down syndrome.
To learn about the chromosomal disorder, the three visit a center that serves kids with the condition. Jess meets Bridget (Brooke Bloom, excellent), an exhausted mom whose son attends sessions there, and pursues a friendship with her.
But while Jess feels positive about the pregnancy, Josh and Aaron want her to have an abortion. Their decision reflects not only practical concerns, like financial strain, but misgivings about raising a child that isn’t “normal.”
Jess, who is black, chides the couple for what she calls eugenics-minded thinking. The men tell her she’s judging them unfairly.
Upset, Jess considers having the baby and raising it herself. Her mother (Tonya Pinkins), worried that the demands of raising a special-needs child would force Jess to abandon her career, favors the abortion route.
Potentially insurmountable animosity develops between Jess and the men.
Hersh directs conventionally, with medium-pilot intensity.
Because the movie doesn’t judge its characters, or favor one viewpoint over other, all three protagonists can be taken seriously, and their dilemma and the debate it prompts is stirring.
Batchelor, the standout, gives Jess, whose self-righteousness can be a turnoff, essential humanity and complexity. She’s crucial to the drama’s effectiveness.
To screen the movie, visit www.monumentreleasing.com/the-surrogate.
Starring: Jasmine Batchelor, Chris Perfetti, Sullivan Jones, Brooke Bloom
Written and directed by: Jeremy Hersh
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
* * *
In this world full of hate and brutality, dogs love humans generously and unconditionally, and the animated adventure “Marona’s Fantastic Tale” – screening starting Friday at the Roxie’s virtual cinema — charmingly illustrates their bighearted, loyal spirit.
Romanian filmmaker Anca Damian, collaborating with Belgian artist Brecht Evens, chronicles the life of a cute pooch, Marona, in this Paris-set French-language canine-condition story. Marona shares her journey, from puppyhood to the tragic accident that bookends the movie.
We meet Marona’s pedigreed father, mongrel mother and three owners: a lithe acrobat, a brawny construction worker, and a friendly little girl who becomes a cellphone-preoccupied teenager. All give Marona a name and a home, but eventually she’s abandoned.
While the slight story sometimes feels drawn out, Marona, with her heart-shaped nose, ears that suggest angel wings, and loving nature, is a winning heroine.
The colorful animation — created with 2D, 3D and cutout techniques and bringing to mind fauvism, surrealism, and children’s art — is inventive and dazzling. Imagery ranges from Paris street life to celestial orbs to a formidable tomcat.
Marona’s Fantastic Tale
Starring: Voices of Lizzie Brochere, Bruno Salomone, Thierry Hancisse
Written by: Anca Damian, Anghel Damian
Directed by: Anca Damian
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes