There’s a scene early on in the new Judd Apatow-directed The King of Staten Island in which the central character, Scott Carlin (SNL’s Pete Davidson), is explaining to his oldest friend Kelsey (standout Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl) why he doesn’t think it’s a good idea that they date, even though they are secretly and regularly sleeping together. Naturally, we assume it’s because he’s a selfish, immature guy who doesn’t want to be tied down. But in the first of many very personal revelations about Scott, he admits that he’s afraid that his struggles with mental illness will scare her away if they get too close. “I’m scared of myself,” he says, and it’s in that moment that I knew this film was something different.
The truth is, if this movie had been nearly identical to just about any of Apatow’s other works (such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up or Trainwreck), I probably would have been fine with that as well. But it becomes clear in that moment that big laughs are not necessarily the primary goal of screenwriters Apatow, Davidson and former SNL writer Dave Sirus. They want to make us feel something when we’re least expecting it, and that’s exactly what happens.
Staten Island starts out a bit like Trainwreck, in that it borrows heavily from the life of its lead actor (Amy Schumer in that film, Davidson here), but then diverges considerably to tell a more accessible, cinematic story. By all measures, the 20-something Scott is a bit of a loser, although one with dreams. He still lives with his ER nurse mother Margie (a fantastic turn by Marisa Tomei), but he has aspirations of becoming a tattoo artist (actually, his dream is to own a combination tattoo parlor and restaurant, which everyone agrees is just gross and unsanitary), and his younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow, daughter of the filmmaker) is about to leave the nest to go to college (only 45 minutes away, but Margie acts like she’s going across the country).
Commonly known about Davidson’s backstory is that his father was a firefighter who died on 9/11, and although the details about Scott’s father have been changed for the film, he remains a firefighter, and the event changed the course of Scott’s life—and outlook on life—forever. He worshipped the ground his dad walked on, but after his death, Scott never understood why he would have sacrificed himself to save strangers instead of choosing a safer job and being there to watch his kids grow up. It’s a dilemma that impacts much of the film until it’s dealt with in a poignant scene later in the movie.
Claire and Scott have a talk the night before she leaves for school, and it is perhaps the film’s greatest moment. They fight all the time, the way siblings often do, but the love expressed in that small scene is enormous and important to understanding that Scott sees his life as a series of abandonments. These feelings are made worse when Margie begins dating shortly after Claire leaves, perhaps seeking to fill the enormous gap in her life since her son doesn’t exactly give her the emotional support and understanding that Claire did. Margie decides to date another firefighter, Ray (comedian Bill Burr), who had a run-in with Scott early in the film, so naturally Scott isn’t thrilled about the arrangement, even if he is in support of his mother dating again.
Much of The King of Staten Island is split between Scott spending time and smoking weed with his childhood buddies—Oscar (Ricky Velez), Igor (Moises Arias) and Richie (Lou Wilson), each of whom are given their own unique quirks (as well as a slightly different relationship with Scott); and Scott attempting to form some sort of friendship with Ray in an effort to please his mother. But of course, Scott feels like he’s being pushed out once again, and he seeks to break up the relationship by befriending Scott’s ex-wife Gina (Pamela Adlon, FX’s “Better Things”), who shares custody of their two children. Scott frequently walks the young kids to and from school as a favor to Ray, but he manages to get some dirt on his mom’s boyfriend in the process—a plan that backfires horribly.
The King of Staten Island clocks in about about two-and-a-quarter hours, which sounds excessive, but I admit, I could have watched this cast go on for days. Earlier this year, Davidson proved himself a charming and surprisingly layered actor in Big Time Adolescence, and that winning combination is only enhanced under Apatow’s guidance, as Scott is forced to come face to face with how his attachment to his father has left him unable to move forward. Under Ray’s guidance, he ends up spending time at his dad’s old fire station and meeting a few guys who worked with him, including veteran firefighter Papa (Steve Buscemi) and a few other characters played by former colleagues of Davidson’s real-life dad. In a just a few key moments, Buscemi turns Scott around on the idea that firefighters shouldn’t have families, and it’s moving and heartbreaking.
Over the course of the film’s final act, Scott is lovingly called on his shit by those closest to him, and while it stings in the moment, he’s pushed into something resembling adulthood and appears to be thriving. Based on his slacker SNL persona, one wouldn’t expect Pete Davidson to be at the center of a comedy that deals seriously with childhood trauma and the subsequent emotional turmoil. But with The King of Staten Island, it’s as if Apatow took a look at the man-child persona that he helped shape in his earlier films and seriously wondered how those guys got that way in the first place. Sometimes, there’s a reason people don’t grow up, and it’s not always because they don’t feel like it. While the film doesn’t want to be a complete downer in its introspection, it does provide us much food for thought while warming our hearts at the same time.
The film will be available on VOD beginning Friday.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!