The King of Staten Island
Pete Davidson commands attention in Judd Apatow's arrested development-fuelled comedy, which is loosely based on the 'Saturday Night Live' star's own life story.
July 20, 2020
Judd Apatow has a length problem. If one of his manchild protagonists said that, they'd be poking fun at his penis size, but we're actually referring to the duration of the filmmaker's movies. His arrested development-fuelled comedies always clock in at around the two-hour mark, minimum. Whether he's laughing at a middle-aged man's lacklustre love life, an unplanned pregnancy, or a comedian and movie star's near-death experience, the director behind The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People never does so with brevity. So, returning to his favourite topic after giving it a slight twist in Trainwreck — which swapped his usual floundering male lead for Amy Schumer — it's hardly surprising that Apatow's latest flick feels protracted. Loosely inspired by Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson's life, including what might've happened if he hadn't made it in comedy, The King of Staten Island definitely, noticeably meanders. Thankfully, it's also candid, raw and funny, as well as exceptionally well-cast.
Oozing a different kind of BDE — that'd be big daddy's boy energy here, and even big deadbeat energy — Davidson plays 24-year-old Staten Island resident Scott. He still lives at home with his overworked nurse mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) and his college-bound younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow), and he still can't quite cope with the death of his firefighter father on the job 17 years earlier. A high-school dropout who dreams of opening a combined tattoo parlour and restaurant, he spends his time smoking weed with his mates (Moises Arias, Ricky Velez and Lou Wilson), sleeping with but refusing to commit to or publicly acknowledge his lifelong friend Kelsey (Bel Powley), and inking up anyone who'll let him. Then, after making a particularly poor decision involving a tattoo gun and a nine-year-old, he ends up with irate firey Ray (Bill Burr) first yelling on his doorstep, then dating his mum.
Born and raised in Staten Island himself, 26-year-old Davidson lost his own firefighter dad in 2001's September 11 attacks — and, unsurprisingly, he co-wrote The King of Staten Island's script with Apatow and ex-SNL writer Dave Sirus. Hanging out with someone who is playing a part, but has also mostly been there and done plenty of what viewers see on-screen, the movie always sports a lived-in vibe as a result. Indeed, rather than just conjuring up relatable comic scenarios for chuckles, it heaves with extra weight and resonance. Scott's aimlessness, his inability to face his feelings about anything and his juvenile response to almost every situation all feel grounded in truth, then unfurled in the film in an unvarnished fashion. And while few folks watching have been in the exact same circumstances, The King of Staten Island leans into the minutiae of its Staten Island experiences and coming-of-age antics with such commitment that they prove universal. That's what personal, specific stories do when they're told frankly, and with warmth and care — including when they pair a tale about a wayward twenty-something grappling with trauma with a hefty stream of bro-comedy jokes.
This is an Apatow movie, though, so the usual manchild escapades and humour do apply. That's especially true when the film indulgently watches on as Scott pals around with his buddies, which is where the feature's relaxed length makes itself felt. But, more importantly, The King of Staten Island is a Pete Davidson movie — and that has a considerable impact. Apatow often shapes his films around his stars (see: Knocked Up and Seth Rogen, Funny People and Adam Sandler, and Trainwreck and Amy Schumer); however Davidson might be his best lead yet. He's lanky and loose, as the comedian always is in SNL. He plays the wayward yet vulnerable slacker role with ease and even confidence, too, as he did in the thematically similar Big Time Adolescence. Plus, with a sense that he's willing to not only step into his own shoes, but also laugh and take a look at himself while he's there, he nails Scott's cruising, childish, often dickish demeanour and behaviour. That he does so while the radiant Tomei, determined Powley and, as another firefighter, a laidback Steve Buscemi all leave an imprint is no minor feat.
Here, confronting how easy it is for immature, inertia-riddled men not to grow up makes for a canny and amusing semi-autobiographical comedy, as mixed with another of Apatow's hallmarks since his and Paul Feig's Freaks and Geeks days: sweetness. When the film opens with Scott driving down the highway, shutting his eyes for a second and flirting with death, it hints at a much darker, deeper movie that sadly never eventuates — although the feature that does blaze across the screen is steeped in unmistakable sorrow, Apatow has always loved getting sentimental. Still, The King of Staten Island isn't the by-the-numbers addition to the director's resume that it could've been. It undeniably relies upon a formula, but it benefits from Davidson's rougher edges and brutal self-awareness. And, as shot by Paul Thomas Anderson's regular cinematographer Robert Elswit (an Oscar-winner for There Will Be Blood), it benefits from gorgeous, naturalistic 35mm imagery also — fittingly for a film that tasks its lead with peering back at his upbringing, pain, loss, laughs, learnings, quarter-life struggles and all.
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