It’s hard to say whether Colin Jost can’t catch a break or if he’s caught way, way too many. On the one hand, he’s the Harvard-educated head writer of the most prestigious comedy talent farm in America, and as co-anchor of its most beloved segment, he sits at the desk that’s launched a dozen A-list careers. On the other, the critical backlash to Jost’s time at Weekend Update thus far is rivaled only by that to his extra-SNL efforts, like this New Yorker piece (sample line: “Well, guess what, I’ll slap you and the horse you rode in on.”). Staten Island Summer, which debuts on Netflix this Friday, is not likely to remedy this situation.
Written by Jost and directed by SNL regular Rhys Thomas — he’s responsible for the show’s spot-on spoofs of Wes Anderson, ’70s cop shows, and Quentin Tarantino — Staten Island Summer isn’t an official product of Studio 4H. It’s not based on a sketch, like Wayne’s World or the many, many attempts to capitalize on its success that followed, and its star has yet to join the Not Ready for Primetime Players. But given the background of its writer, director, and ensemble cast, not to mention its Lorne Michaels production credit, Staten Island Summer is a de facto Saturday Night Live production, and it fits right into that oeuvre’s decidedly uneven track record.
Though there are minor details that give Staten Island Summer some autobiographical flavor, the overall plot is a paint-by-numbers high school comedy, the kind that’s so lovingly parodied by Wet Hot American Summer and its ragtag group of teenage camp counselors. (The contrast is all the more heightened by Netflix’s decision to release Staten Island Summer and Wet Hot prequel First Day of Camp on the very same day.) Feel free to skip to the next paragraph, you’ve heard this one before: a white, straight, upper-middle-class teen boy plans one last party before he leaves the suburbs and his menial summer job behind for college; comic relief and consummation of childhood crushes ensue.
The teen boy in question is Danny Campbell (Graham Phillips), who, like Jost, grew up in Staten Island — “like Brooklyn and New Jersey had a baby, and that baby would grow up to be either a cop or a fireman” — and plans to attend Harvard. The summer job in question is lifeguarding at the Great Kills Swim Club, with the help of Chubby SidekickTM Frank (Zack Pearlman), tomboy Mary Ellen (Cecily Strong), stoner deadbeat Skootch (Bobby Moynihan), and guido MILF-chaser Anthony (John DeLuca). The lifeguards want to throw a party; their weirdo boss (Mike O’Brien) disagrees. Thus is the minimal conflict/joke platform established.
Oddly, all of this takes place in the present, though one could be forgiven for thinking the film is set several decades earlier given the clichéd — or deliberately throwback, depending on how charitable the viewer is — nature of its setup. (There’s even an early gag referencing The Dark Knight Rises that appears to exist for the sole reason of confirming we’re well into the 2010s.) But while the story may be an intentional homage to the summer nostalgia flick, Jost keeps the ugly, lazy tropes that should have been left back in the genre’s heyday: women are rendered almost exclusively as slo-mo-worthy objects of slack-jawed stares and awkwardly timed boners; the only female character with a discernible personality and significant screen time is literally described as “practically a guy”; Method Man’s cameo role is, of course, a drug dealer prone to whipping out a gun; Frank gets a nice subplot about fat acceptance, but his love interest, along with every other teen girl in sight, is stick-thin and conventionally gorgeous.
All of this might be forgivable, however, if the jokes could land. They don’t, aside from a few one-liners from Jost and set-pieces by Thomas — the aforementioned slo-mo scene is more inventive than it needs to be, and there’s a nifty animation sequence near the end. Yet Staten Island Summer is simply not that funny, and so it never coheres into the tribute or even spoof it could be. All the Kate McKinnon scenes in the world couldn’t wash away the sour aftertaste of a nine-year-old having sex with a stuffed lion, one of many ill-advised sex jokes. And poop jokes. And Latino-janitor-wielding-a-flamethrower jokes.
Because Paramount is distributing Staten Island Summer via Netflix rather than the box office, it’s not much of a risk for either the studio or for Jost. (For more on how the streaming model encourages smaller, low-reward films, check out this profile of Netflix “micromoguls” the Duplass brothers.) But even in its modest ambitions as an enjoyable tribute to Jost’s hometown, Staten Island Summer doesn’t measure up. Audiences don’t exactly lack for opportunities to take in Fred Armisen or Will Forte cameos, and for all its working-class, Italian heritage, Staten Island is too much like every other American suburb to distinguish an otherwise by-the-book comedy.
Plenty of SNL alumni have survived middling movies, and Staten Island Summer doesn’t preclude the possibility that Jost’s Mean Girls equivalent may happen eventually. Yet his screenwriting debut won’t do much to dissuade those who find Jost’s humor, in the immortal words of Mallory Ortberg, “more like ‘funniest guy at a yacht party’ than ‘Weekend Update host.'” If Jost is angling for a big-screen, or in this case laptop screen, career, Staten Island Summer is an inauspicious start.