Pete Davidson is the neighborhood kid everyone hopes will get his act together, except that neighborhood is national TV, and “everyone” is literally everyone. His appeal reminds us of the lovable bullshitter in our family who’s always ready with a joke but can’t keep a job—only Davidson’s comedy is full of hard truths instead of bullshit, and the man never stops working.
The King of Staten Island is not Davidson’s first film, but it is the most definitive statement of him as a comedic actor outside of standup. It follows his own life so closely that it can hardly be called semi-autobiographical. Instead, think of it as a glimpse into an alternate reality where Davidson never found success in comedy. His character Scott still has all of the intelligence, humor, mental illness, and childhood trauma as the actor portraying him, but where Davidson honed his craft, Scott’s is questionable. The character’s dream of a tattoo restaurant is not only a dubious idea, he doesn’t even have enough focus to become a tattooist’s apprentice. Davidson found an outlet, Scott never did.
Directed by Judd Apatow from a script by Davidson, Apatow, and “Saturday Night Live” writer Dave Sirus, The King of Staten Island is never quite as funny as it should be. It’s not as deep as it wants to be, yet for all of its 136 minutes, you can’t stop watching.
Scott lives at home with his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) and sister Claire (Maude Apatow). His father was a firefighter who died on the job when Scott was 7. Now in his mid-20s, he’s constantly high on drugs of varying intensity with his friends. He’s a lot to handle but utterly charming, and sympathies run deep for the hardship he’s faced; so much so that no one has the heart to tell him what a weird idea a tattoo restaurant is.
When Claire graduates high school, Margie’s life is at a standstill, and she agrees to a date for the first time in years. Ray (Bill Burr) is also a fireman, and the two met when Scott attempted to tattoo Ray’s young son. Margie, with Ray’s support, insists that Scott get a job and begin looking for his own apartment. In Scott’s heart, he is aware of his problems and wants the best for his mom, but in action, he rejects the upheaval and blames Ray for sabotaging his life. To Scott, the fact that Ray is a firefighter is even more reason to resent him as an interloper who will only subject Margie to the same pain she felt all those years ago.
In some ways, The King of Staten Island is classic Apatow: A famous or up-and-coming comedian with something to prove in a story that balances lowbrow gags with surprising maturity. He turned Steve Carell and Seth Rogen into leading men with The 40-Year-Old-Virgin and Knocked Up, and showed us a new side of Adam Sandler in Funny People. Though Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck and the Knocked Up spin-off This Is 40 didn’t reach the same heights as Apatow’s other work, he has always remained too invested in his characters to let his stories succumb to pat, unearned morals. While The King of Staten Island’s ending is less satisfying than it might have been, Apatow comes by it honestly.
The film stands apart from other Apatow projects in a few notable ways. The director has often joked that the “written by” credit on his films is questionable, given the amount of improvisation on his sets, and the filmmaking reflects this, with stationary cameras and the editing based mostly around who is speaking and not what is happening. The King of Staten Island shows another side of Apatow, as a director in control of his film. There is much more attention paid to how a scene is filmed, blocked, and edited to reflect shifting attitudes and power dynamics. When Margie tells Scott about her new boyfriend and his profession, Scott instantly stands up while she remains seated, and the handheld camera captures the chaos of the moment. He is attempting to dominate the room and will prevent her from settling into her decision if it means getting his way. Later, after he’s been kicked out, he visits in an attempt to convey that he’s grown up and should be allowed back in. Margie, already day drunk and having a blast with her friend, is unfazed, calmly walking him to the door with a sympathetic tone before locking him out. In this scene, the camera and blocking is sympathetic to her, and the motion lulls us into believing she’ll have a dialogue with him, enhancing the surprise.
Any flaws in The King of Staten Island are easily forgiven for its sincerity, its good intentions, its excellent supporting cast, and the willingness of its star and director to expand their creative boundaries. Davidson portrays a version of himself, but he is not phoning it in;, he builds an interesting dynamic with his co-stars rather than dominating the scenes. Whether it’s worth more than two hours will be up to the viewer, but despite its appearances, it is not more of the same from either Davidson or Apatow.
R, 136 minutes/ Streaming (Amazon Prime)