Review: “The King of Staten Island”

It’s a credit to “The King of Staten Island” that it stars two comedians I’m personally not a fan of, and yet I still immensely enjoyed not only the film, but the characters they played.  The new comedy/drama from writer/director Judd Apatow (who co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Sirus and star Pete Davidson) possesses some of the hallmarks of a typical Apatow comedy, but is a surprisingly touching look at an aimless young man struggling to reconcile his past with his future and find his place in the world.

Davidson stars in the movie as Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old high school dropout who lives with his single mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) and younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow) on Staten Island.  Scott’s father was a firefighter who died saving people from a hotel fire when he was a kid, leaving Scott with a string of mental issues.  Now he spends most of his time hanging out with his friends, smoking weed, being super non-committal in his relationship with longtime friend but now-maybe-girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley), and aspiring to work as a tattoo artist (specifically to open a tattoo parlor slash restaurant).  After Claire goes off to college, Margie starts seeing Ray (Bill Burr), and Scott is averse to him because he, like his father, is a firefighter.  While their relationship is initially contentious, Scott starts to take on more responsibilities like walking Ray’s young children to school, and is forced to come to terms with his father’s death.

Pete Davidson (as Scott Carlin) with Steve Buscemi in “The King of Staten Island”

Clocking in at 136 minutes, “The King of Staten Island” is, like many Judd Apatow movies, quite lengthy for a comedy.  The length is only a detriment to this film, however, in that it takes so long (about an hour or so in) before the purpose of the story becomes clear.  The first half of the film is filled with scenes and anecdotes that are still enjoyable, but the film really picks up in the second half when we reach the real meat of the story.  Even then, there are still some scenes (like one in which Scott and friends try to rob a pharmacy) that are funny but ultimately unnecessary to the overall story.  While “The King of Staten Island” straddles comedy and drama, it leans a bit harder on the latter, although Apatow does an admirable job balances both tones within the movie.  It’s not outrageously funny (although an early scene where Scott tries to tattoo a nine-year-old boy may beg to differ), but the film is filled with situational comedy, dark comedy, and witty dialogue that suits Scott’s character (and Davidson) well.

Margie (Marisa Tomei) watches TV with son Scott (Pete Davidson)

“The King of Staten Island” is a semi-autobiographical story for Davidson, which may be partly why he is able to slide into Scott’s skin so effortlessly.  I’ve never found Davidson or his brand of comedy particularly charming or funny before, but he pulls it off here.  His performance is surprisingly layered, as he combines past trauma with dark comedy to craft a fully realized character.  It would be easy to write Scott off as lazy, as a freeloader, even as a criminal, but eventually it becomes clear how much his past informs his present.  Once he is finally able to humanize his father in his mind, he is able to take steps forward.  Burr is another surprise.  As Ray, he keeps you guessing for much of the film as to whether the audience ought to like him or not.  Ray’s relationship with Scott grows and changes in a believable way.  They are at times combative, at times tender, but it all comes to a poignant conclusion.  Tomei is also a lot of fun as Scott’s mom, elevating what could have been written off as mere support of the male leads into a full-bodied portrayal that’s equally tough and sweet.  Steve Buscemi also appears briefly but memorably as Papa, one of the other firefighters from Ray’s squad who bonds with Scott and helps him remember his father.

“The King of Staten Island” occasionally drifts as aimlessly as its protagonist, but it ultimately leaves both Scott and the audience in a better place than where we started.  It may be another coming-of-age story for an older audience, but it made me further appreciate Apatow’s storytelling ability, as well as the talents of both Davidson and Burr.  In this film, they really are kings.

“The King of Staten Island” is available to watch on demand on all platforms. Runtime: 136 minutes. Rated R. 4 out of 5 stars.

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