'The King of Staten Island': Film Review

THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND - Still 1 -Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Davidson delivers.
6/12/2020

Pete Davidson stars as a fictionalized version of himself — alongside Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr and Bel Powley — in Judd Apatow's comedy about grief, family and New York City's least popular borough.

With his exhaustively documented romantic flings and mental health struggles, Pete Davidson is one of those performers whose ubiquity in the pop culture sphere is more impressive than his resume; you may feel you know his life better than his work.

Part of that, of course, can be attributed to the actor's own calculated blurring of lines. But Davidson's recent Netflix stand-up special and movie Big Time Adolescence — in which his role is a riff on his damaged stoner-goofball public image — reinforced the sense that the SNL cast member, despite his confessional brashness, was rolling out a brand rather than revealing a distinctive talent.

Originally slated to premiere at SXSW, Judd Apatow's The King of Staten Island is the latest class in the ongoing "Intro to Pete Davidson" course: Davidson co-wrote the screenplay with Apatow and SNL scribe Dave Sirus, drawing from his experience as a Staten Island native whose fireman father died on 9/11 when he was a kid.

The good news is that it's an enjoyable class. Davidson is fully plugged in, and the director — for all his oft-discussed shortcomings, still the cream of the mainstream American comedy crop — has crafted a sturdy showcase for him. The King of Staten Island is nothing if not conventional in its arc and themes, and has some of the usual Apatow aggravations, but it's winning: relaxed, generous, suffused with warmth and a surprisingly delicate sorrow.

Davidson, it turns out, is a fine leading man. Loose and expressive, he strikes a balance of droll loutishness and sensitivity that never tips over into Sandler-esque clowning or cloying. This fictionalized, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God version of Pete Davidson is a classic Apatovian hero: a stunted man-child drowning in Freudian hang-ups — specifically, an Oedipal crisis brought on by his mother's new love interest. But Davidson's cheerful cynicism counters Apatow's cornier tendencies in a way Seth Rogen's teddy-bear menschiness, for example, did not. If The King of Staten Island is the director's least overtly comedic effort — with fewer jokes, gags and slapstick set pieces — it's also probably his least sentimental.

As semi-autobiographical vehicles go, the film isn't as bracing as Apatow's Trainwreck, which was powered by Amy Schumer's sharply tuned comic persona as well as a mischievous subversion of expectations for how rom-com heroines behave. Nor does The King of Staten Island have the go-for-broke energy of much of the filmmaker's other work. And that's okay — it's Apatow's mellowest, most authentically melancholic movie (sorry, Funny People), a portrait of male dysfunction with enough soul and sting to overcome its familiarity.

Davidson plays Scott, a 24-year-old aspiring tattoo artist suffering from ADHD, depression, Crohn's disease and a ferocious case of Peter Pan syndrome. Still living with mom Marge (Marisa Tomei), a nurse, and sister Claire (Maude Apatow), who just graduated from high school, Scott spends his time with a trio of childhood homies (Ricky Velez, Moises Arias and Lou Wilson) stuck in a similar phase of arrested development. The boys, a band of literal basement dwellers, while away the hours smoking pot, playing video games and razzing each other.

Scott also has a girlfriend, Kelsey (Bel Powley, playing it to the hilt), a young woman with a heart as big as her outer-borough accent and dreams of becoming a city planner in Manhattan. She's crazy about him, but he can't commit. "There's, like, something wrong with me, mentally," he tells her, and it doesn't take a psychoanalyst to diagnose the underlying issue: Scott's father, a fireman, died on the job when Scott was seven, and he never recovered from the trauma of that loss. ("He was the fucking coolest guy ever," Scott reminisces.)

One day, Scott makes the dubious decision to tattoo a nine-year-old boy (don't ask). Cue the kid's dad Ray (stand-up comedian Bill Burr) showing up at Scott's house to berate him — and Marge for raising such a screw-up. But Marge, whom Tomei plays, wonderfully, as a softie but not a pushover, disarms Ray. Soon, he's back on her doorstep, extending apologies and an invitation to coffee. Their impromptu date leads to a full-on secret courtship, with Ray regularly sleeping over and slipping out of Marge's room before Scott wakes.

Scott freaks out when Marge finally tells him about her relationship, triggered by his unpleasant first encounter with Ray — and by the fact that the guy is a firefighter, like his late father. Despite a few attempts at bonding to placate Marge, the hostility between Scott and Ray boils over.

Marge, exhausted by the childish, ego-driven men in her life, calls it off with Ray and kicks Scott out. With Kelsey annoyed at him and his bros sidelined by a not-totally-convincing turn in the plot, Scott shows up at Ray's firehouse looking to crash. Ray lets him stay less out of kindness than self-interest; he knows Marge won't take him back if he doesn't make amends with her son.

This being an Apatow film, Scott starts to get his shit together and tiptoes toward adulthood. There are montages, heart-to-hearts and a recurring bit in which Scott walks Ray's kids to school that leans a tad too hard on the cutesy visual juxtaposition of the tiny tots and their towering beanpole of a chaperone.

But the director minimizes the moralism and keeps things moving — a good thing because, as usual, emotional logic is not a forte; neither Scott's extreme initial reaction to Ray nor his eventual maturation feel entirely organic, and the link between the protagonist's particular set of problems and the death of his father is never satisfyingly explored. (Shrewdly, the film casts Steve Buscemi, an actor whose default mode is dyspepsia, as the fireman who delivers the only mildly sappy climactic speech that connects the dots.)

Apatow serves up amusing Staten Island shtick: Lynne Koplitz has a few fun moments as Marge's blowsy sister, and Scott's job as a busboy at a local Italian joint yields some laughs (one customer's reaction when he tries to clear her table prematurely is a highlight). But in the grand scheme of the Apatow oeuvre, The King of Staten Island's comic pleasures are low-key. There are no bravura sequences a la The 40-Year-Old Virgin's chest-waxing, nothing like the inspired bouts of scatological improv and one-upmanship that Rogen, Jonah Hill and Jason Segel brought to Knocked Up. Nor are there many of the left-field touches that have made Apatow comedies stand out from the studio assembly line (Jane Lynch's Guatemalan love song in The 40-Year-Old Virgin; Charlyne Yi's bizarre klepto confession in This Is 40; whatever Tilda Swinton was doing in Trainwreck).

What the film has in abundance are the kind of detail and texture that give the story, for all its fidelity to formula, room to breathe as well as a gradual emotional pull. The things Apatow and co. get right range from tiny (the way Scott has to be harangued off the couch to come say goodbye to his college-bound sister; Marge's tickled realization that Ray is flirting with her) to fundamental (Scott and Claire's persuasively exasperated sibling dynamic; the evolution of Scott's relationship with Ray, a prickly, profanity-laced bromance that may be the least solipsistic male bond Apatow has ever depicted).

The King of Staten Island is also perhaps Apatow's best-looking film — a bittersweet achievement, given that it won't be widely seen on the big screen. Making vivid use of Staten Island locations, DP Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), a first-time Apatow collaborator, shoots in a loose, fluid style, imbuing the frames with a scruffy, at times luminously nostalgic New York romanticism.

But the movie owes the most to its actors, who flesh out broad "types" with deft strokes of humor and feeling. Burr gives a richly shaped comic performance, turning Ray's whiplash shifts between rage directed at Scott and tender gallantry toward Marge into an affectionate send-up of masculine hubris.

As is often the case in Apatow films, the female characters spend an inordinate amount of time telling the dudes to grow up. Luckily, the actresses here invest their roles with spirit and backbone, and the director lets them shine. Tomei is a particular joy as a woman who sees the limitations of the men around her very clearly, and indulges them until she doesn't; the scene in which Marge explodes at Ray and Scott is cathartic, as is her response when her son returns days later, telling her he's already changed.

Davidson, with his gangly limbs and cartoonishly ripe features, plays Scott with roguish charm and a fidgety vulnerability. Scott is obnoxious, but he's redeemed by his transparency — a willingness to wear his wounds close to the surface, just beneath the veneer of jackassery.

It's a characterization that's refreshingly free of preening and self-pity. Scott's fragility isn't conveyed via tearful breakthroughs or gazes loaded with meaning. Rather, it's there in the undercurrent of despair detectible in his alternately self-deprecating and scornful quips — and in quieter moments, as when he listens to the firemen telling stories about his dad, wide-eyed and eager to take it all in. Scott is working through his grief, which also means, as suggested by the film's moving final shot — an image of hopefulness and humility — that he's getting ready to open himself up to a world beyond his own pain.

Distributor: Universal Pictures (Available June 12 on VOD)
Production companies: Perfect World Pictures, Apatow Productions, Universal Pictures
Director: Judd Apatow
Writers: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, Dave Sirus
Cast: Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow, Steve Buscemi, Ricky Velez, Moises Arias, Lou Wilson
Executive producers: Pete Davidson, Michael Bederman, Judah Miller
Producers: Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Editors: Jay Cassidy, William Kerr, Brian Olds
Production designer: Kevin Thompson
Costume designer: Sarah Mae Burton
Music: Michael Andrews
Casting: Gayle Keller, David Rubin

Rated R, 136 minutes