If you didn’t already know that you were watching the latest comedy directed by Judd Apatow, the opening scene of The King of Staten Island might actually prime you to expect something a little different, something with a little harder-edge — a tense psychodrama, possibly, with a millennial Travis Bickle angrily speeding down a highway. But, as we soon learn, Scott (Pete Davidson) isn’t a sociopath, just a screw-up, scrunching his face into a ball of pain and hitting the accelerator with reckless abandon. We see him swerve, at the last minute, and drive off unscathed — the cars behind him aren’t so lucky — and winds up muttering to no one in particular: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Dumb decisions and useless apologies pile up fast in The King of Staten Island, all served up with the Apatow signatures of weed-fueled witticisms and shoutouts to mainstream popular culture. But there’s something a little different this time around, largely because Davidson isn’t your classic intuitive star to build a crowd-pleasing vehicle around.
In recent years, the twenty-six-year-old comedian has become an attention-grabbing fixture of SNL and tabloid headlines, and stuck out from both like a fascinating, unusually lanky thumb. Numerous columns have been devoted to gossipy scrutiny of everything from his physical appearance to his string of celebrity relationships and his self-acknowledged struggles with borderline personality disorder. Davidson hails from that school of comedians who like to put their demons front and center. And he has now done that by cowriting (with Apatow and Dave Sirus) this personally inspired movie about loss and emotional recovery, which doubles as a funny valentine to the titular New York City borough he calls home. But a Staten Island upbringing isn’t the only thing Davidson and his alter ego have in common. They both have Crohn’s disease. They both are big potheads. And they both were only seven when their firefighter dads were killed in the line of duty. Scott can laugh off that tragedy now, or at least he pretends he can, but beneath the whatever-man slacker vibes it’s clear that the loss has scarred him deeply. Although his younger sister (Maude Apatow) is about to leave for college, Scott, now twenty-four, doesn’t have much going on. He spends his days dreaming of becoming a professional tattoo artist and still lives at home with his mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei), who’s too sympathetic at first to give him the kick in the shorts he needs.
But that kick is right around the corner, and it will be co-administered by Ray (a strong Bill Burr), a recently divorced father of two who, through a chain of Scott-induced events, becomes the new man in Margie’s life. Things get serious fast, and tensions between the two men heat up accordingly. Ray is quick to criticize Scott’s laziness and loser attitude. Scott can’t stand Ray’s ranting, mustache or the fact that he happens to be a firefighter — a coincidence that neatly but effectively raises the ghost of his dad’s death, which hovers as quietly yet visibly in the background as the Manhattan skyline. Nearly every exchange between these two men roils with comic tension, which is a testament to Burr’s ability to be both genuinely annoying and genuinely likable, sometimes in the same moment. He’s a meddler, a blowhard and a hothead. He’s also a loving boyfriend to Margie and, like Scott’s dad, a man selflessly devoted to the hard work of saving people’s lives. He’s quite a character, a foil and an antagonist who carries some solid weight.
The King of Staten Island grows to high levels whenever Burr joins Davidson on-screen, especially when they’re joined by Tomei, whose flinty warmth has rarely been more winning. But the movie gets a little more better when we get to meet some of Ray’s colleagues down at the firehouse, played by actors including Domenick Lombardozzi and a typically pitch-perfect Steve Buscemi. This sterling blue-collar character work on the sidelines of the main action is a pleasure unto itself. And it also plays a crucial role in Scott’s healing, as he transforms from an avatar of deadpan comic chaos into the latest Apatow poster child for tough love, self-improvement and arrested development. In the director’s past collaborations with professional comics, like Amy Schumer in Trainwreck and Adam Sandler in Funny People, he has held up a persuasively cracked mirror to his protagonists’ emotional wounds, helping them piece their lives back together and offering them valuable lessons about friendship and family along the way. And that can make those movies sound a little cookie-cutter, though the best ones have found ways — through nuances, boisterous laughs and authentically messy, lived-in emotions — to sidestep the easy trappings of formula.
The King of Staten Island works hard to strike its own artful balance of humor and heartache, qualities that both seem permanently etched in Davidson’s face. Part of the film’s inevitable fascination is the question of how much is fictional and how much might be rooted in lived experience: One scene, in which Scott launches into a furious rant about how firefighters shouldn’t be allowed to have children, cuts pretty close to the bone. It’s a scene that points to something else that unites Scott and Davidson: a gift for making their audience squirm, for letting their anguish seep out from behind a big smile. And that grin seems to conceal as much as it expresses. As well as we get to know Scott, something about him still feels fuzzy and nondescript; he’s like a sketch that can be played for laughs and milked for tears even if it hasn’t been entirely filled in. And the movie, juggling too many narrative priorities over an overlong two-hour-and-seventeen-minute runtime, seems to succumb to Scott’s own sense of aimlessness as much as it depicts it, which necessarily isn’t a bad thing as it gives the film a low-stakes hangout vibe in the vein of some of the great films of the ’70s and ’80s. But there’s also a few plot turns that are curiously underdeveloped, from an armed robbery attempt to Pete’s on-and-off romance with Kelsey (Bel Powley). She’s a childhood friend and an aspiring city planner who loves Staten Island and wants to see it become everything it can be.
Powley, who’s quite good, doesn’t get nearly enough scenes here, but she gives them the impact they need. If the movie, like Scott, too often treats her as an afterthought, it does recognize her larger significance as an emblem of Staten Island itself, the underloved borough that is intrinsically linked to Scott’s sorrows and joys. Yet, Scott’s still someone who continually does whatever he believes is in his best interest, even when the end goal is hazy, teetering close to danger and a life of pain. And Apatow keenly captures this state of arrested development with enough empathy that, by the credits, those with previously no interest in the comedian’s story may count themself as a new fan. Lead by a soulful Pete Davidson, The King of Staten Island sees Judd Apatow capturing an unique rhythmic balance of humor and heartache for a piling, familiar story of angst and disillusion.
The King of Staten Island is available on VOD