Before starting, one thing: On the Rocks is quite competent. Please note this, tuck it away in the back of your brain, because On the Rocks is also another thing: it’s quite boring.
Following the story of a young New York couple, Laura (Rashida Jones) becomes increasingly suspicious that her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is sleeping around. Not impressed, Laura is unwittingly dragged into a spy operation of sorts by her father Felix (Bill Murray), who tries to prove Dean is, in fact, sleeping around.
Off the bat, it’s one of the more visually striking dramedies of late – softly lit, peaceful yet slightly uncomfortable darks. It’s really natural, but God help you if you try watching in broad daylight. The first five minutes are stately, honing us in on these people’s lives, focusing less on words and more on visuals, letting expressions and body language convey a marriage beginning to crack, and it just feels correct. There are a few of these moments, usually playing with the quiet anxieties of uncertainty in various respects, whether it be marriage or purpose or fulfillment, and in those moments On the Rocks is effective.
To boot, each of the main three actors – Jones, Murray, and Wayans – are game, each successful with the varying degrees of quality their characters are blessed with. Murray can’t really bomb this type of “charismatic oof” role. Wayans doesn’t have much to do, or much of a personality, though he makes a decent enough effort when his infrequent moments turn the corner (he plays the “I’m always working but love my family” type, which, to be fair, is limited at baseline). Jones is the crux of the movie and she shines brightly, bringing great deals of internal strife that define and humanize Laura.
It’s mildly annoying, then, that On the Rocks relegates Jones to the type of protagonist subject to exposition dumps early in, killing the natural momentum those first five minutes gave. I understand that it’s easy to get baggage out in the open early, but at the very least one can characterize Laura better than, “I’m a writer, should’ve never sold a book, now I have problems,” and On the Rocks loves to use Laura’s ability to write as an easy barometer for her mental well-being, despite us having no idea what she writes or what really drives her, as apparently that falls outside the scope of this film. It makes for less-than-riveting characters, with Murray’s Felix being the only one coming to grips with any personal demons, and even then it’s almost cursory. The last half-hour nicely picks up pace, finally bringing the Drama™, but hits a narrative wall once (spoilers) things wrap up between Laura and Dean in a pretty little bow and that’s that. The resolution between Laura and Felix is surprisingly more complex, suggesting that you can love and keep questionable people in your life without necessarily absolving them of the things they’ve done – probably the most insightful thing throughout a film that doesn’t have much to say.
It all falls a little flat compared to the zest of Coppola’s prior work, like Emma Watson’s iconic “I wanna rob” from The Bling Ring. To be clear, though, On the Rocks isn’t bad. It’s light and airy enough to be innocent viewing, but a consequence of that is a distinct lack of fervor, flair, or anything particularly memorable, which is disappointing when you have a hotpot of talent who can obviously do much more.
Judd Apatow has given us a taste of his dramedy stylings before with 2009’s Funny People, a movie I have not seen in a very long time, but I do remember distinctly that it was a very long movie. His latest, The King of Staten Island, is a technically competent dramedy, embodying the reality of slackers who want to be happy with what they have but are tormented by personal demons in need of exorcising, but do you know what else it is? 40 fucking minutes too long, that’s what.
The King of Staten Island follows Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson), an aspiring tattoo artist who’s also stuck in a rut of smoking weed with his group of friends, stuck in a casual-but-maybe-not relationship with a girl named Kelsey (Bel Powley), and seen as hitting a brick wall by his family, with his sister Claire (Maude Apatow) trying to contain his neuroses and his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) pretending everything is well and good.
The movie wastes no time establishing Scott is troubled, with the very first scene having him close his eyes while driving and vibing to music, nearly crashing and causing untold damage. Notably, this scene offers the maximal self-destructiveness we ever see in Scott, as Staten Island does not wish to treat the character with the gravitas an opening scene about suicidal ideation might suggest. Staten Island‘s first five minutes are an exposition dump, laying all of Scott’s cards on the table (in a succinct monologue, we learn that Scott is an awkward slacker, has various medicated mental health issues, and is manic and irresponsible) – a perfectly fine gesture if the movie were at all interested in hitting the ground running. Imagine my surprise, then, when I pause and find out 27 minutes have passed and nothing has happened, except for Claire going off to college – which has little emotional sway so it feels like nothing.
Staten Island gets a mild boost when Scott attempts to tattoo a 10-year-old named Harold, and Harold’s father, Roy (Bill Burr), obviously disapproves of this and raises hell, subsequently bonding with Margie. Roy’s a firefighter, much like Scott’s late father, so the thought of his mom shagging another firefighter won’t do. Staten Island is also kind enough to expeditiously show Roy and Margie’s relationship blossoming through a montage, a moment of restraint and respect for narrative tightness in a movie impartial to either (extra frustrating is that it decides to cut down on Burr and Tomei, who have nice chemistry and outperform mostly everyone else, and opts instead to hang out with Scott’s scattershot group of friends who are either deeply unlikable, mean little to the story, or both). Judd Apatow’s filmography has always erred on the longer side, but there’s an aimlessness that’s been rearing its ugly head of late, and in that respect The King of Staten Island is an epitome. There are clusters of scenes that don’t work, ranging from simple disjointed cuts like Roy watching Scott with focused thought in one shot then gleefully blasting him with a fire hose in the next, feeling like a random assortment of scenes from a film set that were stitched together by indulgence than adherence to story, all the way to an oddly dark robbery scene that could’ve been cut without much dissonance.
And this isn’t an aimlessness that’s poetic, or in line with the aimlessness experienced by Scott – who really isn’t that interesting a character (I watched the trailer for Big Time Adolescence, Davidson’s last prominent movie role, and Scott just seems like a slightly more serious version of Davidson’s character in that, even down to the tattooing), outshone by supporting characters like Margie, Roy, Roy’s ex-wife Gina (Pamela Adlon), and especially Kelsey. In fact, I’d argue a recalibration of Staten Island that focuses on Kelsey would do a lot of good, since she’s the only character who actually wants to effect change on Staten Island (the location has next to no influence on Scott and he could’ve been anywhere, so the title isn’t super fitting) and is genuinely endearing. She demonstrates a certain kind of independence as a character versus Scott, who’s really at the mercy of wherever the story needs him, functioning better as a supporting figure than a relatively blank protagonist going through the movie’s motions. Since The King of Staten Island has the momentum of a model train, such a shift might’ve cleared up many ills.
The movie’s occasionally funny, with little moments like a restaurant fight club or Margie’s friend’s hyena laugh (a fleeting 2-second moment, but I love it all the same). It’s never funny, though, and this wouldn’t be a big problem – this is a dramedy after all – but Staten Island isn’t particularly dramatic either, so what gives? Topics like trauma and grief are chewed up with shallow acknowledgement, and when it does hint at things like the social consequences of depression and its role in the vicious circle of declining self-worth, it never goes in. It’s a safe movie about a character in an unsafe headspace, with moments of potential profundity brushed over in favour of contrivances (the catalyst that reunites Scott, Margie, and Roy after their falling out goes for laughs but feels extremely easy), which is annoying when the movie has a more than sufficient runtime to flesh things out.
The last hour largely takes place at the fire station Roy works at, where we spend time with his colleagues – who had previously made the briefest of appearances at a football game and I was surprised the movie rounded back to them like we’re supposed to care. If this were a shorter movie, the gap between appearances wouldn’t be so jarring, but here we are. Scott learns some things about the value of work and that this Roy fellow isn’t so bad, and maybe opening up to people is healthy. This isn’t a neat, satisfying little bow – Claire is the person most concerned for Scott in the beginning, yet she completely vanishes from the movie in the last half after expressing even more concern for Scott after the robbery scene. Hell, Scott’s aspiration for a tattoo restaurant – an idea each character scoffs at, perhaps rightfully so, but at some point anything interesting is welcome – doesn’t make any headway (or his career as a tattoo artist, even though we’re led to believe this is an integral passion).
The question The King of Staten Island poses is whether a slacker bogged by unresolved grief can take meaningful steps forward, and the answer we get is, “well, maybe.” Scott doesn’t feel fundamentally different than when we first meet him, maybe slightly less of a man-child, slightly more aware of responsibility. There’s something to be said for that, but The King of Staten Island doesn’t want to unpack, reprimand, and have actual consequence (those that do occur have painfully obvious resolutions), so making us sit through 136 minutes to say precious little is just rude.