Even if you’re not familiar with his work, Pete Davidson has been one of the most unavoidable celebrities of the last few years, whether it’s for his controversial jokes, high-profile love life, or brazen openness about his own mental health struggles and drug dependencies. So, when it was announced that Judd Apatow, no stranger to films that border on vanity projects, was going to direct a semi-fictionalised account of Davidson’s life, where Davidson co-writes and plays himself, there was an understandable trepidation around what could be a very insular, self-congratulatory story. Thankfully, The King of Staten Island is, instead, a heartwarming and very funny offering, a gentle and loose hangout film with big laughs and great performances.
Davidson’s avatar here is Scott, a 24-year-old layabout, still living at home, having been stuck in a state of arrested development since the age of seven, when his fireman dad died on the job. This static anguish is pulled directly from Davidson’s own life, and he plays it gracefully, making Scott both sympathetic and insufferable as he bounces between self-pity and a genuine awareness of his own faults. It’s not exactly a huge stretch for Davidson, but he’s a more charming, subtly compelling lead actor than one might assume from his standup or SNL work.
It’s in the supporting cast that The King of Staten Island really shines, though, from Steve Buscemi as a kindly fire station captain to Kevin Corrigan as an absurdly funny shady restaurant owner. Scott’s friends are a hilarious bunch, their easygoing stoner conversations peppered with great one liners and naturalistic character work. As Scott’s kinda-sorta girlfriend Kelsey, Bel Powley is the best of the bunch, stealing all her scenes as the only member of the group with any real ambitions. Working through a very thick Staten Island accent, Powley is utterly convincing and is instrumental in giving the film the emotional weight it’s clearly striving for.
As is typical of an Apatow script, The King of Staten Island is a bit meandering, from the extended scenes of casual conversation to the very slow movement of the plot gears. The story kicks off in earnest after Scott’s younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow) moves out to go to college, leaving Scott even more adrift. In a haze, Scott – an aspiring tattoo artist – makes the appalling decision to give a passing nine year old a Punisher tattoo. It’s a genuinely queasy scene, funny and dark, and when the kid’s dad turns up in a blind rage, you’re far more sympathetic to him than Scott.
This dad is Ray (Bill Burr), who becomes another fireman father figure in Scott’s life after Scott’s lonely and frustrated mum Margie (Marisa Tomei) takes a shine to him. Tomei is a little wasted in a concerned mother role, but she does get some great jokes of her own, and Burr is absolutely exceptional. He brings the laughs you expect of him, but with a dramatic depth that feels new and, though his relationship with Scott is formulaic (from hostilities to manly bonding), Burr grounds it and makes it real.
Scott ends up finding direction by helping out around the firehouse, learning life lessons as he goes. It’s hardly original stuff, but Apatow’s careful work both on the page and behind the camera uses this familiarity as a strength, not a weakness. He makes it easy to immerse yourself in Scott’s world, and the comedy and drama work in tandem, helping the initially daunting 137 minute runtime fly by. Despite its surface similarities, The King of Staten Island isn’t a cinematic therapy session like we saw last year with Shia LaBoeuf’s Honey Boy – it’s something gentler and funnier, and the best Judd Apatow film since Knocked Up.