Pete Davidson plays a man-child that cannot get out of his own way in this irresistible dramedy that cements his status as the latest Saturday Night Live cast member bound for big screen stardom. Judd Apatow’s first feature directing job since 2015’s Trainwreck is one of the best films of his career. A screenplay by Davidson, former SNL writer Dave Sirius, and Apatow embroiders facts from Davidson’s real life to spin a coming-of-age tale both goofy and poignant.
In a way, The King of Staten Island is a kind of examination of where Davidson’s life might have gone had he not had the drive to start doing stand-up in his teens and the talent to carry it all the way to a job with SNL at 20. Like Davidson, 24-year-old Scott Carlin is a Staten Island native with a sister and widowed nurse mother, suffers from Crohn’s Disease, and lost his firefighter father when he was just a little boy. (Davidson’s father, to whom The King of Staten Island is dedicated, died at the World Trade Center on 9/11; Scott’s father died at the scene of an ordinary fire.)
The similarities end there. Scott’s failure to launch is tolerated by his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei); a cause for worry for his younger, college-bound sister Claire (Maude Apatow); a source of frustration for childhood friend Kelsey (Bel Powley), whose torch for the big galoot shines brightly (not that he is observant enough to notice); and scarcely noticed by Oscar (Ricky Velez), Richie (Lou Wilson), and Igor (Moises Arias), his trio of buddies who are even more clueless than he is. Scott can barely hold down a job and his dream of becoming a tattoo artist seems destined to be thwarted by his tendency to embrace self-defeat.
Something has to change, but this is not a movie of epiphanies and sudden self-awareness. Instead, it is pique at firefighter Ray Bishop (Bill Burr) showing interest in Margie that inadvertently spurs Scott to his first baby steps to an adult life. The two cannot stand each other. Ray sees Scott as an impediment to a relationship with Margie. That Ray is a fireman is too much for Scott, who has never gotten over his sense of abandonment when his father died. But Ray and his fellow firefighters, including Papa (Steve Buscemi, who was a New York fireman before turning to acting) and Lockwood (Domenick Lombardozzi), are also living embodiments of Scott’s dad. Through watching them, the memory of his father begins to accrue flesh and blood, a necessary step if he is ever to get out of the rut that has become his comfort zone.
Apatow has shepherded so many young talents toward connecting with their best selves as actors and writers. He does it again with Davidson, who can be hilarious in his high dudgeon over his mom’s relationship with Ray and with his bluster of false bravado whenever the subject turns to his unrealistic ambitions. But he also has a sweet side that comes out in exchanges with small children and at his worry and wonder when he watches Ray and his crew at work.
The King of Staten Island is exceptionally well-cast down to its smallest roles, but the biggest delight comes in watching Davidson and character actor Burr. As adversaries, Scott and Ray are hysterical whether engaging in a war of words or slapstick fighting. A movie built from that alone would have been satisfying, but the story is deeper than that and part of the joy of it is watching these actors add shading to their characters and to that relationship. It is a pleasure watching comedian and character actor Burr step up to his first major role in his 50s and it is a pleasure watching the 26-year-old Davidson take his place as a leading man. Staten Island should be proud of its famous son. –Pam Grady
The King of Staten Island opens on Premiere Video on Demand on June 12.