One of Judd Apatow's major gifts as a writer/producer/director is that he helps funny people craft their work around their own personal stories. Under his guidance, Lena Dunham turned her experiences into the show Girls and Amy Schumer turned hers into Trainwreck. Now he helps Pete Davidson turn his considerable pain into The King of Staten Island, an alternately hilarious and touching film about a lost young man coming to the realization that he desperately needs to find himself.
The lead character is named Scott Carlin, but is basically Davidson himself: a wisecracking, heavily tattooed stoner with bipolar disorder who was deeply scarred by the death of his firefighter father when he was seven. (The comedian's father perished helping people out of the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel on 9/11, whereas his fictional counterpart's perished in a hotel fire.) Scott lives in Staten Island with his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) and college-bound sister Claire (Maude Apatow). He spends his days smoking weed and watching The Purge with his buddies, although he occasionally has sex with would-be girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley).
A number of things conspire to rock Scott's world. Claire leaves for school, then Margie begins dating Ray Bishop (Bill Burr). Ray is a firefighter, too, which proves to be a major trigger for Scott. Plus, they hate each other. When the relationship gets serious enough, Margie wants Scott to move out. Kelsey doesn't entirely want him, and his friends have a boneheaded plan guaranteed to mess up their lives. With increasingly slim options, the aimless pothead has to figure out what to do – and how to manage all the anger inside so that he doesn't defeat himself for once.
Through Saturday Night Live and his stand-up routines, Davidson has made a career poking fun at his own issues. The King of Staten Island is in that tradition. The movie finds comedy in dysfunction, as Scott uses sarcasm to hide major insecurity. Sharply written dialogue points a flashing neon sign at his self-loathing. Lots of films give us screwed-up characters, yet few have characters who know they're screwed-up as fundamentally as Scott does. His joking about it – or self-destructively making situations awkward through it – provides many big laughs.
A darker current runs underneath that. The King of Staten Island is a very good movie about how grief can lead to aimlessness. In more serious moments, Scott opens up about losing “the coolest dad ever” and worrying about getting too close to other people, lest they die on him like his father did. The screenplay, which Davidson and Apatow wrote with Dave Sirus, is observant in how it depicts the fear that has paralyzed Scott, keeping him in a perpetual child-like state. He attempts to smoke the pain away, and when he can't do that, he finds additional means of avoidance. Several of the other characters tell him to his face that he's a loser; they still care about him – as do we – because they understand his slacker mentality is the only way he knows how to cope.
The last act of the movie is particularly compelling, as Scott discovers an unlikely life preserver to grab onto. The King of Staten Island makes what could have felt contrived feel authentic. And that's because everything prior to it has been authentic too – the portrait of Scott's trauma, the codependent relationship with his mother, the escape that getting high with his pals provides, the perpetual worry of his sister, and so on. That the film ties so many elements into a satisfying finale is one of its core strengths.
Dismissing Pete Davidson's performance as “playing himself” would be too easy. He draws on his own life to do work that is as funny as it is credible. The comedian finds the right moments to tilt toward humor or toward anger. Bel Powley and Marisa Tomei do excellent supporting work as Margie and Kelsey, showing in different ways how the two prominent women in Scott's life slowly run out of patience with him. The scene-stealer is Bill Burr, who brings hilarious bluster to Ray, along with a surprising sense of compassion.
At 137 minutes, The King of Staten Island is a little on the long side. The movie could have used a slight bit of tightening. So much is going on here, all of it done well, that you don't grow impatient, though. Apatow and Davidson have made a comedy of substance, one that generates huge laughter from dark themes, while always taking its subject seriously. They tell an unexpectedly beautiful story of healing and hope.
out of four
The King of Staten Island is rated R for language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images. The running time is 2 hours and 17 minutes.