When someone pictures a semi-biographical film centered on the life and psyche of a divisive figure like Pete Davidson, they might be expecting a darkly comic look at mental illness and millennial anxieties stemmed from past trauma. I mean, there’s a ton to unpack in that one thought alone.
When watching The King of Staten Island, it’s clear that’s the film Judd Apatow was trying to make. Staten Island finds Pete Davidson essentially playing himself, though here he goes by Scott. He has mental and emotional issues, makes “edgy” jokes, and generally embodies millennial slacker stereotypes. The King of Staten Island is missing one key ingredient, however—something to say about those traits and personality features. The result is a disappointingly one-note and fairly uninteresting character study.
The King of Staten Island follows Scott (Pete Davidson) as he navigates the ups and downs of his slacker lifestyle, which gets turned upside down when his sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), leaves for college and his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), starts seeing Ray (Bill Burr), a Staten Island firefighter and the first man she’s dated since her husband passed away almost two decades ago.
The setup is not terribly original, but it does lay the groundwork for an examination of past familial trauma and self-discovery, and this film is happy to hit all the familiar notes. Scott fights with Ray and schemes with Claire on how to get rid of him, but what sets this film apart is the fact that everybody, including Scott, sees him for what he is: a loser.
There’s a welcome self-awareness to Scott’s characterisation and, by extension, Davidson’s performance. Like his character in the film, Davidson’s father passed away in the line of duty as a fireman. Scott also grapples with ADD, Crohn’s disease, and mental health issues, just as Davidson himself has talked about. This alignment between the real world and his character results in a strong performance, but not necessarily an enjoyable one.
Scott is standoffish and mostly unlikeable by design, but the film never seems to advance him in any major ways. While it’s refreshing to not see a troubled character totally absolved of his sins by the end of a film, Scott barely moves at all. There’s one scene in particular towards the end where he grossly betrays Ray’s trust and it’s played as a sweet moment. That kind of dissonance makes it hard to truly relate and feel for Scott in the end, despite the numerous occasions where he shows that he’s capable of being a better person.
Judd Apatow has made a name for himself by giving comedians star vehicles that play to their strengths, like using Steve Carrell’s age for good in The 40-Year Old Virgin or helping Amy Schumer’s raunchiness take shape in Trainwreck. He does the same here with Davidson, taking his anxiety-driven dark comedy and channeling it into a story about a man-child coming to terms with adulthood. However, Apatow is never able to reach below the surface and mine that premise for its true worth. The film spends much more time revelling in debauchery than searching for redemption or purpose, and it wears very thin by the time the credits roll.
In more capable hands, this could have been a truly subversive comedy that grapples with the darker elements of Scott’s psyche. The film begins with him closing his eyes on the highway while driving, and it isn’t played for laughs. I can see why Apatow chose to tell this story, but he squanders nearly every chance he gets to evolve his storytelling style or hit interesting beats. Instead, he chooses the least compelling plotline to follow at any given time.
For example, it takes the film nearly an hour and a half to put Scott at a fire station with Ray, which is far and away the most compelling place to take him. Having him grapple with both his father’s legacy and his current relationship with a father figure makes the most sense from a narrative standpoint, but we don’t get there until the third act. Instead, we spend the previous 90 minutes watching Scott and his friends smoke weed, talk about how both great and awful Staten Island is, and work at a pizza restaurant.
On their own, these scenes are fun enough (often, they’re more amusing than hilarious), but they never really amount to anything. Scott and his friends rob a pharmacy in one of the film’s more serious stretches, but he never suffers any consequences and the film just does away with his friends. Sure, something interesting has happened, but if nobody learns from it or changes as a result, then why did we spend 15 minutes on it? I won’t start the “Judd Apatow films are too long” discussion here, but even for him there is a degree of aimlessness that tarnishes some of the film’s better moments.
However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge how great most of the performances are from the cast. Like many of Apatow’s films, The King of Staten Island has a deep roster of cameos, comedians, and character actors all doing great work. Davidson and Burr get the most to work with, and their relationship is by far the film’s most compelling. Marisa Tomei is also perfect as Scott’s mother, who just nails the look of a woman from Staten Island (if you know, you know). The film also features Bel Powley as Scott’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, Kelsey, who gives all of her scenes some heart as she fights to make Staten Island better. Pamela Adlon also pops up as Ray’s ex-wife, as well as Steve Buscemi, who plays a firefighter in one of the film’s more soulful roles. Even when the material is lacking, the cast is top-notch throughout.
I really wanted to like The King of Staten Island. Even when I’ve disagreed or disliked the things that he says, I’ve always had a soft spot for Pete Davidson. Despite his many quirks and flaws, there’s something sympathetic about him as a twenty-something who has struggled with mental health and anxiety in the past. This film had all the necessary pieces to create a compelling portrait of a damaged soul, but the plot combined with Apatow’s conventional direction hold it back at every turn. Combine those with a bloated runtime, and it’s hard to find much to root for in this underdog story.
Directed by: Judd Apatow
Written by: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, Dave Sirus
Cast: Pete Davidson, Bel Powley, Marisa Tomei, Ricky Velez