When 20-year-old Pete Davidson made his debut on Saturday Night Live in 2014, he drew notice through his appearances on “Weekend Update,” where, as himself, he spoke on topics ranging from gender-neutral bathrooms to his mental health. Though he also performed in sketches, his monologues were more compelling. His blasé way of addressing heavy topics, such as his experiences getting sober and dealing with suicidal thoughts, made them feel less taboo and more approachable and relatable. And while he played it all casually, his frankness still revealed his more vulnerable side. Director Judd Apatow banks on that appeal in his new VOD movie The King of Staten Island, which stars Davidson (who also co-wrote the script with Apatow and Dave Sirus) as a loosely fictionalized version of himself, and proves his capabilities as a leading man.
His character Scott has been stuck in a rut for most of his life. When he was 7, his firefighter father died on the job, and Scott, now 24, still isn’t sure how to process that trauma. Having dropped out of high school and with no intention of going back, he passes the time by getting high with his friends, dreaming about opening a combination restaurant and tattoo parlor. But his situation shifts when his little sister Claire (Maude Apatow) goes away to college and his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) begins dating again. Everyone around Scott is moving forward with their lives, and when Margie finally kicks him out of the house, he has to figure out how to move on, too.
The King of Staten Island is built on a typically Apatovian blueprint — slacker learns to grow up and accept responsibility, as in Knocked Up — but Davidson’s personal touch distinguishes it. Scott is a little more of a fatalist than the typical slacker-stoner Apatow hero. In the film’s opening, he closes his eyes as he speeds down the highway, leaving his life or death up to chance. He opens his eyes just in time to avoid an existing pile-up, but has to swerve through traffic, forcing everyone else on the road to veer out of his way. As he drives off, he can’t help mumbling, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” even though nobody can hear him. The sequence serves as a perfect introduction to Scott; he’s going through a lot of emotional turmoil and has no good way to process it all, but he’s still in tune enough to recognize how his actions affect others.
Scott doesn’t always act sensitively with that knowledge, though. The new man in his mother’s life, Ray (Bill Burr), is a firefighter, just like Scott’s late father. Besides the fact that they meet under prickly circumstances involving Ray’s young son and Scott’s aspirations to become a tattoo artist, Scott has complicated feelings about the profession. His experience with firefighters is marred by the feeling that his father abandoned their family. Scott has been smoking pot to repress his feelings about his father’s death, and having Ray around brings them back to the surface.
As circumstances force Scott to get to know Ray — and Ray’s fellow firefighters, played by Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Tatro, and Domenick Lombardozzi — the film shifts into a two-hander about growing up. Ray, who is as loud and abrasive as Burr is in his stand-up comedy, has to learn to open up, too. Even though their dynamic centers on constant aggression, their interactions keep The King of Staten Island engaging even as the conclusion winds down to something less edgy than Davidson’s usual sense of humor.
Davidson’s role, essentially playing himself, lends the film a feeling of realism. But the screenplay approaches that realism by meandering through events and spending too little time on too many things. In addition to everything else, The King of Staten Island focuses on subplots about whether one of Scott’s friends is being catfished, and Scott’s unwillingness to commit to Kelsey (Bel Powley), who assumes they’re dating until Scott refuses the label, right after sex. The detours are in line with Scott’s aimlessness, but their sheer number causes the movie to drag, and a key sequence toward the end ends up feeling abrupt rather than entirely earned.
In spite of those flaws, there isn’t a weak performance in the bunch, and Davidson’s apparent willingness to put his flaws and vulnerabilities on screen keeps The King of Staten Island afloat. As in his stand-up comedy and his appearances on “Weekend Update,” Davidson’s take on himself is self-deprecating without sacrificing emotional honesty. With Apatow and Sirus’ help, he’s created a self-portrait that feels genuine, and perfectly captures both his appeal and his potential as a movie star.
The King of Staten Island debuts on VOD on June 12.
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