Colin Jost has not yet proven himself an all-time great Weekend Update anchor on Saturday Night Live, but with Staten Island Summer, he at least joins the elite club of Update anchors who have written feature motion pictures. Staten Island Summer doesn’t have a voice as distinct as Tina Fey’s Mean Girls or Norm MacDonald’s Dirty Work; though actual Staten Island native and Harvard alum Jost is writing about Staten Island native and Harvard-bound Danny Campbell (Graham Phillips) working as a lifeguard during the waning days of summer, only a few moments ring with distinct personality. Unless, of course, Jost’s teenage experience actually was suspiciously similar to the movie Superbad.
Though the pool setting brings to mind The To Do List, Superbad is indeed the inescapable comparison point for Staten Island Summer, especially with skinnier, gentler Danny preparing to part ways with his chubbier, more foul-mouthed lifelong bestie Frank (Zack Pearlman). Pearlman does the movie no favors with his poor man’s Jonah Hill routine, but it may be hard for him to shake, having already subbed in for Hill’s How To Train Your Dragon character on the TV version. Danny and Frank have less of a concrete quest than the pursuit of sex that powered Superbad; mainly they want to circumvent their smarmy boss Chuck (Mike O’Brien) by goofing off at work and mounting an end-of-summer after-hours blowout with the co-workers who serve as their de facto friends.
This is essentially Saturday Night Live summer stock, with Jost and O’Brien joined by supporting players Cecily Strong, Bobby Moynihan, Fred Armisen, Kate McKinnon, and Will Forte, under the supervision of SNL segment director Rhys Thomas and, naturally, producer Lorne Michaels. If it’s all a little indulgent of some funny people screwing around, much of the movie is pretty funny, particularly when it veers away from the teenage protagonists. Moynihan is well cast as a burnout named Skootch, Strong deploys typically charming put-downs, and Armisen gets into some amusing Caddyshack-ish shenanigans trying to destroy a wasp’s nest with the help of his pint-sized sidekick Wendell (Jackson Nicoll of Bad Grandpa and Fun Size, who may well be a child that Paramount Pictures purchased outright for the express purpose of playing weird little sidekicks in ramshackle comedies).
Jost’s script tries to inject some Staten Island specificity into the usual coming-of-age narrative, describing the most isolated borough of New York City as “if Brooklyn and New Jersey had a baby” and riffing on both the ethnic and occupational makeup of the area: lots of Italians, cops, and firefighters. Thomas’ brightly colored, sun-dappled images even make the Great Kills Swim Club look rather lovely, and adds some neat visual touches like a vision of passersby exploding into celebratory confetti when Danny catches sight of his old crush Krystal (Ashley Greene). But the movie’s sense of place is ultimately limited to some mobster jokes and a Method Man appearance, as Jost’s script insists on mentioning that Staten Island is “like any other suburb” (except for the pesky and unacknowledged fact that it’s not a suburb at all).
Rather than offer any insight into what it’s like living in arguably the most remote section of New York City, the movie focuses its energy on forcing Phillips and Pearlman to re-enact Superbad. (Jost himself even pulls a Seth Rogen by appearing as an irresponsible cop). The closer Staten Island Summer gets to its big climactic party, the closer it adheres to the outlines of that vastly superior movie. More importantly, the distance between laughs grows greater amidst the attempted raucousness, as the funniest characters get sidelined in favor of unearned heart-to-hearts for the underdeveloped teenagers. If it first seems terribly sexist that Krystal’s connection with Danny amounts to a single, repeated inside joke overcoming a decidedly non-romantic shared history, the Danny/Frank friendship turns out to be just as empty. Frustratingly, the movie is plenty likable when it’s not trying to show off its wistfulness. As a reader of the fake news, Jost should know that sometimes silly jokes are their own reward.