By Christian DiMartino
Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island is the film community’s big introduction to comedian Pete Davidson. When watching Saturday Night Live was enjoyable, Davidson was… okay. To my knowledge, no other movie with him comes to mind. Now here he is, front and center, in an Apatow film no less, serving as a co-writer. What’s interesting about this is that Davidson happens to be the film’s flaw. At least for half of the movie.
By the latter half of the film, Davidson does deliver a fine performance and he does provide just enough charm to get by. Yet for the first half, it was difficult to not be irritated by this person. That being said, everyone around him does work so good it might not even make a difference.
Allow me to dive into the story first. Much of the film is based around Davidson’s own life. Davidson’s Scott is a 24 year old without ambition (or a job) who lives in his mother’s (Marisa Tomei, still looking fabulous) basement. Scott and his burnout friends spend their days watching TV, getting high, and roaming around Staten Island. He is also a pretty excellent tattoo artist, with his body being covered in them. Everyone around Scott is undeniably worried about him. Scott is essentially an adult child who is emotionally scarred by the death of his father, a firefighter who died when Scott was a child.
Scott has a sexual relationship with Kelsey (Bel Powley, strong here and in Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl), with who he refuses to commit to… for reasons. She of course is frustrated by this. Scott’s sister (Maude Apatow, also strong) is going away to college, and worried of what stupidity he may partake in. Of course, stupidity does enter the story shortly after she leaves, and the plot gears begin moving too.
One evening, Scott asks a nine year old if they want a tattoo. Obviously too young for consent, Scott does it anyways. Or attempts to, until the boy bows out and runs away. Scott and his mother are then confronted by the boy’s father, a firefighter named Ray (Bill Burr), who approaches them understandably angry. Later on he comes back to apologize to Tomei, and the two ultimately begin dating. Scott, again being an adult child, hates him and does what he can to sabotage them. Well, for a bit at least.
The King of Staten Island is funny, and particularly in this first act. Davidson even gets his moments, but the antics of this character got on my nerves. I’ve been thinking about this movie quite a bit, not that it requires thought like, say, Tenet, but because I think I know the issue. While the story that blossoms in the latter half is sweet enough and emotional, Davidson should’ve saved this film til later in his career. Look at what Apatow delivered with Amy Schumer in Trainwreck. It was a version of her, it was an introduction to her, but it was a character that was consistently funny and mostly likable (some may argue on that one). Take another Apatow production, The Big Sick, which the world’s introduction to Kumail Nanjiani. The film had its share of emotional moments too, but our first real impression of Nanjiani was that of charm, humor, and likability.
Our first impression of Davidson, coming from this film, is one of irritability, with touches of humor. Davidson should’ve gone for a full-blown comedy first, and then once he established our trust, made this film down the road. With all of this in mind though, Davidson’s performance, for the most part, does work in the final half. Humor is sort of tossed aside for an emotional edge, but it is in service of a story about a clueless guy who needed a father figure, lost his, and refused to let anyone new into his life. These are roads that have been traveled before, but in this case Apatow and Davidson do make it a road worth traveling again.
The supporting cast here is really good too, as mentioned before. Tomei gets her moments. I love a scene in the latter half in which Scott, having been thrown out, comes to visit her and her friend, both of which are drunk, or high. Powley is oddly sexy, but also funny- we want more of her. Apatow’s daughter Maude proves to be a pretty good actress too, and more than just a possible case of nepotism. The real breakout here though is Burr. I don’t typically watch stand-up comedy, but I have seen some of his, and he’s a funny guy. Here he gives a performance that is not only pretty funny and understandably acerbic, but also fully dimensional and tender.
Like pretty much every one of Apatow’s directorial outings, The King of Staten Island is probably way too long. My preferred rule of thumb with comedy is that a comedy should get in, tell its jokes, and get out in 90 minutes. Apatow’s films are usually an exception though because he has a good way of developing characters and situations that continue to hold our interest. He has done so here again. I liked The 40 Year Old Virgin. I loved Knocked Up and Funny People. I liked This is 40 and Trainwreck. Despite my initial reservations about Davidson, The King of Staten Island works too.