Your Pete Davidson mileage may vary, but "The King of Staten Island" makes a strong case that he’s built to go the distance.
The latest from director Judd Apatow, America’s premier impresario of dramedies with a side of phallic humor, is a star vehicle if there ever was one. "Saturday Night Live" cast member Davidson headlines the flick, which he also executive produced and co-wrote with Apatow and Dave Sirus.
"The King of Staten Island" was set to open up South by Southwest Film Festival this year before the event’s coronavirus cancellation. With movie theaters still closed for the most part, it will be available on demand June 12.
If you’re familiar with Davidson’s comedy work, the film’s autobiographical notes will be clear. He plays Scott, a self-loathing, self-interested, self-medicated young man going nowhere. "I don’t think I get high anymore," he says at one point. "I think I’m just myself." Scott was a kid when his firefighter dad was killed in the line of duty; in real life, Davidson’s firefighter father was killed on 9/11. "We talk about his dead dad all the time," one of his stoner buds cheerfully tells a new girl in the smoke circle. Scott gamely plays along.
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He’s still living with his mom (Marisa Tomei) in the titular New York borough. When Scott’s not apologizing with less sincerity than a telephone operator who can’t connect your call, he’s reacting to the mere suggestion of anyone else’s pain with a sharp "When do I get a break?" A friends-with-benefits arrangement with childhood pal Kelsey (Bel Powley, brash and bright) isn’t healthy for either of them. His sister (director’s daughter Maude Apatow) is about to head to college, and it’s clear she’s the seal keeping Scott and his toxic stew from spilling out completely. "You should be worried about me," he tells her with ominous sarcasm.
When Scott’s mom starts dating again — another firefighter, to boot — it shoves every last thing he’s been avoiding right under his nose. The stew spills.
As always, Apatow goes too long: The 136-minute runtime is like a jumbo box of movie theater sweets, and the plot is the too-modest bag of candy surrounded by spacious cardboard. But unlike some of his more bloated endeavors — "Funny People," hello — "The King of Staten Island" wafts relatively smoothly through the room, never losing sight of how the story’s pain, pathos and prickliness feed into each other.
You’ve got to hand it to Davidson, whose charisma would have been enough to carry him through. He hits the comic beats, of course. But he also takes advantage of the quiet parts to exorcise some no doubt very real demons right in front of our eyes.
It helps that he can lean on supporting players like Tomei, another actor who started out funny and famously underestimated. (I still can’t help but hear her saying "Buick Skylark" in "My Cousin Vinny," no matter the role she’s playing.) Never showy, Tomei radiates doing-her-best energy and gives "The King of Staten Island" a moral center to orbit. Props, too, for character pros Steve Buscemi and Pamela Adlon in pitch-perfect parts as a fatherly fire chief and a sardonic, long-suffering neighbor, respectively. Casting coups, both.
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Then there’s the matter of one of Scott’s friends, Richie (Lou Wilson), the only black character with a major speaking part. Without spoiling things, he disappears about midway through the movie with nothing more than a troublesome hand wave, after not getting an arc of his own like the rest of Scott’s crew. It leaves a sour taste.
You’ve gotta know this movie will be a little sophomoric going in, but Apatow’s actually pretty restrained, perhaps by an instinct to treat this trauma story with care. And the sap was bound to seep, too — see one balletic firefighting sequence set to, hand to God, an Explosions in the Sky song. Still, Apatow and Davidson have crafted as sensitive an entry as any in the canon of raunchy, semiserious studio flicks about schmucks with hearts of gold — "boorcore," if you’ll indulge me. They populate this fictionalized Staten Island full of characters whom you want to see catch up to what they’re after.
Davidson might be a one-note player on the show that made him famous, best suited for "Weekend Update" bits and digital shorts. A feature-length project, though, seems to be a great place for him to stretch his admittedly long legs.