The King of Staten Island (2020)
Director: Judd Apatow
Screenwriters: Pete Davidson, Judd Apatow, Dave Sirus
Starring: Pete Davidson, Bel Powley, Marisa Tomei, Maude Apatow, Bill Burr
Pete Davidson is Peter Pan if Peter Pan refused to grow up by becoming a stoner who saw no reason to ever move out of his Mother’s basement.
Davidson’s career took off when he was hired as one of the youngest ever cast members of the highly revered, late-night sketch show, Saturday Night Live. The young comic has gained popularity on the show through topical commentary on Weekend Update and sketches in which he frequently plays stoners and other such versions of himself. Davidson’s fame skyrocketed after publicly playing out a brief whirlwind romance with pop superstar, Ariana Grande. The couple’s love affair drew an enormous amount of media attention after the singer titled a song after Davidson on her Grammy-winning album, “Sweetener”, to then, only five months later, name him on the biggest break-up anthem of all time. Since leaving the relationship behind, Davidson has been a constant presence in popular gossip and celeb news, joining the ranks of stars who have also struggled to grow up within the judgement of the public eye, such as Lindsey Lohan and Shia Lebouf.
The King Of Staten Island is a recognisable attempt by Davidson to face his demons head-on. Co-written by Davidson, Judd Apatow and Dave Sirus, the film, Davidson comments, is about ’75 % autobiographical’. The narrative draws from Pete’s own experience of losing his Dad (a firefighter and first-responder) in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, and the lingering effects of said bereavement on his mental health and development into adulthood.
Davidson plays Scott, a twenty-four-year-old directionless stoner who lives in his Mother’s basement in New York’s least celebrated borough. Scott has half-serious dreams of opening the world’s first tattoo studio come restaurant and spends most of his time watching ‘Spongebob Squarepants’ or using his friends as canvases for his mediocre tattoos. Although a considerable amount of time has passed, the death of his Father consumes Scott. Unlike his younger sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), who is going to college, or his semi-serious girlfriend, Kelsey (Bel Powley), who has big plans to work for the city department, Scott’s grief holds him back from finding a purpose for his life. In a conversation about their Father’s death, Scott says to Claire, ‘Well, you’re lucky you didn’t get to know him, ’cause that’s why you’re almost normal. If you got to know him, you would’ve known that he was like the fucking coolest guy ever and that would’ve ruined the rest of your life’. The scene is painful in that it outlines the roots of Scott’s feelings of insecurity and failure, but also displays how Scott uses his father’s passing to justify the shapeless path his life has taken.
Egged on by his posse of Staten Island’s finest weed-fiends, Scott agrees to tattoo a passing nine-year-old boy, which results in an angry visit from the boy’s Father (everybody’s favourite hothead, Bill Burr). Like Scott’s father, Ray also happens to be a firefighter, and despite his angry introduction into her life, Scott’s Mum (Marisa Tomei) falls head over heels in love with him. Scott, who has grown comfortable with coasting by in the comfort of his family home, must cope with Ray’s desire to push him out of the nest and his overwhelming fears that Ray’s presence diminishes the memory of his own Father.
Despite coming in at a meaty two hours and seventeen minutes, the film has surprisingly little in the way of plot. Time meanders away in a series of over-long bits, such as a poorly planned robbery and a college party montage. Although the film is littered with consistent laugh out loud, millennial meme humour, the gags often dry up and fail to lead us anywhere substantial. Annoyingly, in amongst the trivial banter, exist lovely little moments, both tragic and humorous, which stick out like roses in a bed of dead grass and throw away gags. One such gem includes an earnest post hookup moment between Kelsey and Scott, in which she asks him about his inability to orgasm. The scene allows Scott to open up about the side effects of his antidepressants and his fears that he would make an inadequate boyfriend to Kelsey, despite her apparent soft spot for him.
Bel Powley (left) and Pete Davidson (right) in The King of Staten Island (2020).
As the film is so indulgent and desperate to squeeze the schtick out of every single moment, these sharp, tender instances get lost amongst the disarray. The film infrequently proves that it can deliver comedic beats alongside its more severe themes of depression and loss. So, it’s upsetting to continually lose the potency of these moments in irrelevant side gags. With such an ample run time, the film had the space to develop more substantial tension and expand on the key themes of depression and grief that it brings to light. Or, to even give us more of Bel Powley, who steals the show in her role as a cocksure, slick-talking Staten Islander.
Yet, aside from the somewhat messy plot and indulgent runtime, the film has one heck of a beating heart. All can be forgiven in the presence of Pete Davidson, whose transparent vulnerability is overwhelmingly endearing and endlessly watchable. Much of the film rests on Davidson’s natural charisma and the lingering shadow of his personal history, which gives certain uncomfortable moments that extra sting. When invited along to a ballgame with a crew of firefighters, Scott seems unable to control an emotional outburst in which he asserts that firefighters shouldn’t have kids. In these raw moments, Davidson bleeds like an open wound, and his pain is as visible as the many goofy tattoos littering his arms and torso.
Perhaps there was no better co-creator to captain the ship than Judd Apatow, a man who has crafted a living out of getting us to laugh at the stunted emotional capabilities of men struggling to flourish with the demands of adulthood. Apatow has a soft spot for the ageing manchild, evidence of which exists in characters such as Steve Carrel’s Andy Stitzer, who struggles to lose his virginity at the age of forty, or Seth Rogan’s Ben Stone, who would rather create a porn website with his buddies than prepare for the impending birth of his child. Apatow makes a point of never shying away from tragedy and often delivers tangible pathos alongside genuinely entertaining and playful humour. Although The King Of Staten Island delivers more raw, emotional potency than any of his earlier features, much like Funny People and This Is 40, Apatow’s inability to self-edit means that the film’s narrative quickly becomes shapeless and lacklustre.
Apatow has an undeniable talent to mimic the world view of his chosen protagonists, seeing the funny side in their onslaught of troubles and circumstances. The semi-autobiographical characters of Amy Schumer, Seth Rogan and Lena Dunham have proven to strike a chord with the younger generation and Davidson’s Scott is no exception to the rule. Perhaps these formulaic, comedic biographies work so well because we feel less alone watching others struggle to find their footing in a world which so richly reflects our own.
To some, The King Of Staten Island might feel incomplete, as it fails to give Scott the tidy ending we so associate with an Apatow comedy. However, it’s arguable that the film’s most significant power lies in its attempts to outline an accurate portrayal of the reality facing young adults moving towards self-dependence. Given that young adults rarely fall naturally into place, by leaving Scott’s journey open-ended, the film doesn’t invalidate Scott’s trauma or mental health issues. The film ends with structure, and so feels like a new beginning rather than a definitive ending.
Overall, The King Of Staten Island feels like a step forward for Davidson. It’s difficult to imagine how hard it must have been to funnel such a significant loss and the accompanying pain into a comedic performance. Still, Davidson completely pulls it off, in a way that feels both cleansing and cathartic. Although messy in some regards, the film is funny, candid, and seems like a fitting tribute to the memory of Pete’s Dad.