The King of Staten Island (2020)

14 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Scott is a loser. He’s a 24-year-old tattoo-covered man-child trapped in limbo with hardly a foot ready to step into the real world. He still lives with his widowed mother and mostly sits around watching TV and getting high while his younger sister is leaving for college. He’s constantly stoned. He has friends who are equally as unmotivated or unambitious. He doesn’t want to define his relationship with his sort-of girlfriend, even though she’s patient enough to wait for him to come around (and she shouldn’t). At least Scott has a goal…to open up a tattoo parlor that is also a restaurant (“Ruby Tattoosdays,” he calls it…yeah that’ll happen). He’s even about to give a 9-year-old kid a tattoo (in the middle of nowhere, where he and his friends are lazing about) because the kid says it’s OK (that is, until the kid freaks out and runs because the needle hurts). 

Scott needs a wake-up call. And FAST. 

Scott is the main character of “The King of Staten Island,” director Judd Apatow’s latest effort to bring a stage/TV comedian’s talents to film—in this case, it’s Pete Davidson. Davidson plays Scott and also co-wrote the script, originally conceived based on true events from his life. I hope some of these events are exaggerated—there are enough blurred lines between fiction and reality, just like with many of Apatow’s other works, such as “Trainwreck” with Amy Schumer and the Apatow-produced “The Big Sick” with Kumail Nanjiani. Either way, “The King of Staten Island” works just as well because Apatow’s talent of blending hilarious raunchy comedy with moving human drama is put to very good effect here. “The King of Staten Island” is a compelling coming-of-age story about a lazy young adult who confronts his demons and prepares for something new in his life…and it’s also very funny. 

Scott’s world of arrested development is shattered when his kid sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), leaves for college. Actually, no, it’s not that—it’s when his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), who’s been a widow for 17 years, starts dating fireman Ray (Bill Burr). Not only did Scott and Ray get off on the wrong foot (it was Ray’s 9-year-old son that Scott almost tattooed), but Scott feels especially threatened about the intrusion of this new guy in his mom’s life because his late father was also a fireman (who perished on duty*). Ray immediately puts responsibility onto the 20something punk by having him walk his children to school (and Scott also takes a restaurant busboy job, which of course he’s unfit for), and the more Ray and Margie see each other, the more motivated Scott is to split them up fast. 

Minor-spoiler alert, but Scott does succeed in ending the relationship between his mother and the loudmouth fireman. There’s almost an hour left in the film. Where does it go from there? This is the most surprising and refreshing part of “The King of Staten Island”—not only does it show the consequences of Scott’s actions, but it also follows Scott climbing up from rock-bottom, step by step. Scott finds more answers and closure regarding his father whom he desired to know more about. He even finds refuge at Ray’s firehouse, where his father was stationed, and also finds ways to make himself useful there as well. He also finds his true passion, really talks with his mom about dad, and even manages to help someone in dire need (that scene feels a little false, but it’s a climax, so I’ll let it pass). 

None of this film’s back half would have worked if not for the dedicated work of Pete Davidson, who turns in a fully realized performance that allows us to see this unsympathetic jerk flaws and all. Sometimes, Scott is the absolute worst—but he’s always real, and there’s more than enough room in this 2-hour-17-minute long movie to allow him to grow.

The comedy is present mostly from Scott’s snarky remarks and how he relates (or tries to relate) to everyone around him. But the drama is even stronger for exactly that—the comedy is Scott’s defense mechanism (as I’m sure it’s Pete Davidson’s). For every blunt, unfiltered, smart-ass comment, there’s a hint of sad truth when he shares his thoughts as to why firefighters shouldn’t have families. This film has a unique balance that most mainstream “dramedies” could learn from.

The supporting cast serve Davidson terrifically. Marisa Tomei as Margie, Scott’s long-suffering widowed mother, is lovely as always; Bill Burr delivers particularly strong work as the guy who tries to toughen the kid up; Bel Powley deserves her own movie as Kelsey, Scott’s tough-talking but loving potential-girlfriend who wants to pursue city planning; Maude Apatow is good as Scott’s sister who is off pursuing a bright future; Steve Buscemi is always a delight and no different as Papa, senior fireman; and Lou Wilson, Derek Gaines, and Moises Arias (who I want to see in more movies—this guy’s a riot) share great comic timing as Scott’s friends. None of their characters are as developed as he is, but I think that’s the point as we’re supposed to see them through Scott’s eyes.

By the end of “The King of Staten Island,” it’s hard for me not to wish the best for Scott now that he’s found more clarity in the most important part of his life that left him aimless for 17 years. And I hope the same for Pete Davidson. Even though Davidson is popular in his standup acts and on “SNL,” it’s hard not to wonder what demons he’s still struggling with. I hope writing and starring in this film was an effective therapeutic expression. 

*In real life, Davidson’s father was a New York City fireman who died in service during the 9/11 attacks. I get why they altered this detail for the film because it would probably be too much of an overshadow for the film’s comedy. But knowing this information adds an extra layer of pathos.

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