Judd Apatow loves a ‘man-child’, he regularly puts immature, insecure characters (think Seth Rogen in Knocked Up or Steve Carell in 40-year-old virgin) into a distressing – all too familiar for some – life event, and we watch as they run from and eventually face up to it, maturing as a result whilst we laugh our asses off.
On the surface, The King of Staten Island follows suit, yet it feels entirely different, and is no doubt due to Pete Davidson. The SNL star co-wrote the script and much of it comes from Davidson’s own experiences, his father was a firefighter who died on the job and he was born, and still lives, in Staten Island. This shines through in his characters stripped back, raw and honest struggle with his past trauma, and Davidson is captivating in the lead role. The King of Staten Island really is his movie.
The film lackadaisically follows Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson), a marijuana and tattoo aficionado who struggles with anxiety, Crohn’s and coming to terms with the fact his father died when he was young. He spends his days smoking and playing video games with friends, giving them tattoos of varying quality and dreaming of what he believes will be his magnum opus, a tattoo restaurant (an awful idea). But, when Scott inks up a kid, the enraged father Ray (Bill Burr sporting a wonderful moustache) comes knocking… and ends up dating Scott’s Mum (an amazing Marisa Tomei). As Ray is a firefighter, what follows opens an anxiety ridden can of worms for Scott, as he is forced to deal with his changing reality. He does not do this willingly however, hilariously deflecting with Davidson’s brand of dead-pan dry wit. It gets to the point where the viewer is just as annoyed by those closest to him, as they too can see the potential for happiness Scott fails to recognise himself.
Other than Davidson, the supporting cast really do elevate this film. Bill Burr is hilarious and he and Marisa Tomei have great chemistry. Steve Buscemi provides a mature crutch for the humour, but it’s Bel Powley who steals every scene she’s in as Scott’s romantic interest, single-handedly providing much of the intense drama in the film. There are things that let the film down, mainly its run time – something Apatow has always had a problem with – with the entire first hour being given to establishing character and situation. This could easily have been done in half the time without losing any laughs.
At its heart, The King of Staten Island is a deeply human story that explores what tragedy can do to a family. It doesn’t try to over-dramatise and is played with raw honesty by Davidson, whose bruised charisma and dry situational wit more than make up for a film that can be lethargically told at times.
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