Pete Davidson bares his soul in ‘The King of Staten Island,’ but his co-stars truly rule
If you didn’t know you were watching the latest comedy directed by Judd Apatow, the opening scene of “The King of Staten Island” might prime you to expect something a little harder-edged — a tense psychodrama, maybe, with a millennial Travis Bickle speeding angrily down a highway. But 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. He swerves at the last minute and drives 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 requisite Apatovian panoply of weed-fueled witticisms and shoutouts to mainstream popular culture (“Game of Thrones”!). But there’s something a little strained and mechanical about those jokes this time, partly because the movie is trying to get at something serious, and partly because Davidson is not, to his credit, the most intuitive star to build a crowd-pleasing vehicle around.
In recent years, the 26-year-old comedian has become an attention-grabbing fixture of “Saturday Night Live” and tabloid headlines, and stuck out from both like a fascinating, unusually gangly thumb. Untold column inches have been devoted to gossipy scrutiny of everything from his physical appearance — his chest covered with tattoos, an endowment so allegedly generous it spawned its own acronym — to his string of celebrity relationships and his self-acknowledged struggles with borderline personality disorder. Davidson hails, in short, from that school of comedians who like to put their demons front and center. And he has now done that by co-writing (with Apatow and Dave Sirus) this personally inspired movie about loss and emotional recovery, which doubles as a funny valentine to the New York City borough he calls home.
A Staten Island upbringing isn’t the only thing Davidson and his alter ego have in common. They both have Crohn’s disease (which generates a brief, amusing PSA). They both smoke a lot of pot. And they both were only 7 when their firefighter dads were killed in the line of duty. (Davidson’s father died responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.) 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 24, doesn’t have much going on. He spends his days dreaming of becoming a professional tattoo artist (he uses his buddies for practice) 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 on its way, and it will be co-administered by Ray (Bill Burr, sensational), a recently divorced father of two who — through a chain of events for which Scott has only himself to blame — 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 bluster, his mustache (it’s pretty bad) or the fact that he happens to be a firefighter — a coincidence that neatly but effectively raises the specter 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 whom you suspect you could follow into a good movie of his own.
“The King of Staten Island,” for its part, becomes a better one whenever Burr is on screen, especially when he’s with Tomei, whose flinty warmth has rarely been more winning. The movie gets better still when we get to meet some of Ray’s colleagues down at the firehouse, played by actors including Jimmy Tatro, 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. 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 and self-improvement.
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. That can make the movies sound a little cookie-cutter, though the best ones have found ways — through actorly nuances, boisterous belly 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 movie’s inevitable fascination is the question of how much is made up 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, mirthless smile.
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 137 minutes, seems to succumb to Scott’s own sense of aimlessness as much as it depicts it. If some of the laughs feel perfunctory, a few plot turns 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, so good in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” 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. It’s lovely that Kelsey gets the requisite ferry scene, briefly linking “The King of Staten Island” to a cinematic tradition that includes Martin Scorsese’s “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” and Mike Nichols’ “Working Girl.” She lands in Manhattan with a big dream in her pocket and this movie tucked firmly beside it.
‘THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND’
Rating: R, for language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Playing: Available Friday for streaming on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu and other platforms